Ok, so I’m not a naturalist (closest I get to an “ist” is generalist), but watching and photographing the bears at Seal River Heritage Lodge I’m struck by how different their behaviour is to that portrayed in the wildlife documentaries I’ve seen on TV.
One of my colleagues recently responded to my polar bear photos (below), proudly displayed on my office wall, of a beautiful young female and two male buddies along the lines of “such vicious animals, I wouldn’t want to be outside with them!”.
(click on the photos if you want to make them full screen)
I protested that “vicious” is not my experience of polar bears, and I had been within metres of polar bears, on foot. To me “vicious” is a value ladened term, that suggest evil or ill intent. “But” she said “you wouldn’t go up and pat one” – well, no I wouldn’t, I agreed, but that does not make them “vicious”, it just makes them a wild animal – a very big carnivore that from time to time will consider us food.
For those who haven’t read my blogs, in early August 2014 my husband and I visited the Churchill Wild run remote Seal River Heritage Lodge on Hudson Bay, near Churchill, Manitoba.
What we experienced at Seal River Heritage Lodge was a long way from TV shows with skinny male bears hunting bear cubs and mothers having to defend them, desperate starving mothers with cubs, males fighting over females or bears trying to eat the presenter in a perspex cage.
Even our mothers with cubs were pretty laid back.
The exception to the “polar bear as predator” shows are the videos of the Churchill bears and sled dogs playing together. Bears playing together serves at least the purpose of practicing skills they will need in winter – but what purpose does cross-species play serve?
Polar bears at play reminded me very much of our Alaskan Malamutes (a registered breed in Australia, not just a wolf like sled dog). Over the course of 20 years I’ve watched a lot of malamute wrestling and there are many similarities. I’ve also watched our cat (6kg) and the youngest of our dogs (40kg) , who grew up together, wrestle, with usually the cat winning.
That is not to say that what we see on the TV is incorrect, but it does illustrate the danger of stereotyping any complex animal.
We were told at the Lodge that the bears go into “walking hibernation” when there is no ice, slowing down the metabolism and eating very little. “Hibernation” suggests inactivity and not eating, but as you will see below, the bears may sleep a lot but they also play, swim and sight-see (by visiting the reverse zoo that is the Lodge compound) – they also eat, whether its berries or Beluga.
Being where the bears are fat, happy, social and hanging out waiting for the ice to form on Hudson Bay is a world away from the images and video on TV of the Svalbards and the high Arctic.
Before someone suggests my glasses may be rose (fireweed?) coloured – I do accept that bears are dangerous, and unlike many species they are not particularly overawed by humans, so its hard to deter them.
I am grateful to the knowledge of our guides that helped manage the relationship between us and the bears, so we could have the privilege of walking with polar bears.
So what did I observe? Firstly, if the conditions are right – polar bears seem to be genuinely curious about us, new things in their environment and each other. Curiosity can be a good trait for a hunter and I guess hanging out on the tundra must be a bit tedious without some entertainment?
The degree to which a bear was curious about us varied – only one of the two buddies in the photo below was as interested in us as we were in him.
Secondly, while some of the bears we saw were solitary, many of the males were quite social. This, we were told, changes when the ice arrives and there is competition for females.
Thirdly, not only are they social, they actively seek out companionship. One early morning at the Lodge we watched as a a male searched for and found his friend.
They then headed back over the rocks of the intertidal and into the grass.
Initially we only saw two or three males together.
I began to wonder if some of the pairings might be siblings, but at Hubbard Point we counted 13 very large male bears sleeping and socialising (see the Hubbard Point blog for more pictures).
Even in the large group pair bonding seemed to be common (see greeting behaviour top right in the picture above, similar to that in some of the photos above) and when the group got up and moved over the hill – away from us pesky tourists, one bear stayed and went over to his sleeping comrade , and lay down with him while the alert bear kept one careful eye on the zodiac.
So, in conclusion, polar bears are complex, intelligent animals that are curious, social and playful as well as all those other things we see on TV. Let us hope they never organise, like us apes and the wolves, otherwise the bears will inherit the earth.