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Bloody Bears and Humans

February 25, 2011

(photo © David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

I have spent quite a bit of time in the “near north” – not the high Arctic, but still far enough north that I have seen arctic foxes, caribou, ptarmigan, arctic hares, belugas, and, of course, polar bears. And this has not been from the comfort of a tour vehicle; we have generally been on foot, out on the open land.

There have been several occasions when we have had to move out of an area quickly because a bear suddenly appeared over the bluff, and other times when a bear has watched us for quite some time from a (relatively) safe distance, as though he was bored and wanted us to provide entertainment. They have been close enough for us to get the shotgun ready and pull the cracker pistol out of its holster. Still, I have never had a really scary encounter with one of these creatures, and for that I am grateful.

Recently, seeing  photos of bears covered with blood from their prey, I was  reminded of a story once told to me by a man who has lived near Churchill for many years. He has probably had more bear encounters than most bears have had seal dinners, but of all of those encounters, he said that only one of them was really frightening.

Bear meets humans at Akimiski Island, James Bay. At Akimiski the humans are caged in their field camp behind a security fence, while the bears roam freely outside (David Rudkin, Royal Ontario Museum)

It was autumn and there had been snow but there wasn’t yet ice on the bay, so the bears were plentiful around town. The large male bear surprised him around the corner of his house. This bear was well-fed and had blood all over its fur, at a time when it could not have caught a seal in months. The only possible explanation was that it was a cannibal; it had become fat and bloody because it ate other bears. And because it was an outcast (and a psychopath, if such things exist among polar bears), it had even less respect for humans than the average bear has. It kept coming back, it seemed devious and evil, and eventually someone had to shoot it.

I find it hard to shake the image of that bear; perhaps the one positive aspect of the story is that in the polar bear’s world, the psychopaths are readily identifiable. It would certainly be easier for society if human psychopaths actually LOOKED bloody. While we do have laws that generally prevent the sort of treatment of other people that this bear was meting out on other bears, our treatment of some bears and many other relatively sentient animals still leaves a lot to be desired. Are we, in a sense, in the grip of a group  mental disorder?

This young bear and a sibling were tethered in a picturesque part of St. Petersburg in 2007. The owner was charging tourists and wedding parties for the privilege of having their picture taken with a true "symbol of Russia." What are the chances that these bears have survived to adulthood? And under what conditions?

© Graham Young, 2011

7 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2011 3:12 am

    Brilliant post, Graham, and especially timely with what’s happening to the Hay River seals. I wish humans treated animals with the same respect and compassion that we always feel we deserve.

    • Graham permalink*
      February 26, 2011 2:11 pm

      Thank you Holli. Would it make it less timely if I admitted that I wasn’t aware of what is happening to the Hay River seals? I will have to look that up…

  2. Dave Rudkin permalink
    February 26, 2011 2:15 pm

    Thought-provoking, Graham, as usual! I feel compelled to add that none of the (many) bears we shared territory with on Akimiski seemed in the least bit inclined to psychopathic behaviour. They were curious, but cautious, and almost always departed from the vicinty of the compound after a great deal of sniffing and an occasional tentative paw-push at the gate. The few times we observed jaw-gaping, it was silent and appeared more like a nervous yawn than an agressive threat. Only once did we have to use pyrotechnics to discourage a young male from hanging about too long. I just wish they hadn’t been quite so fond of visiting the little privy (which was a good distance outside the compound) and knocking it over on its side!

    • Graham permalink*
      February 26, 2011 2:29 pm

      Thanks Dave. I should have asked you to write this piece – you have so much more bear experience than I do! I think that was his point with this particular bear: that its behaviour was so different from that of typical bears, and that its personality was illustrated by its appearance.

      • Dave Rudkin permalink
        February 26, 2011 2:57 pm

        Absolutely … if we HAD encountered a bloodied bear with attitude on the island, I think I’d have flown that helicopter out myself!

  3. komatiite permalink
    February 27, 2011 1:29 am

    It seems like sooner or later, any geologist who wanders beyond the comforts of the office/lab encounters some sort of wildlife of the family Ursidae.

    My own experience in exploration has been thankfully boring to date, apart from a few startled blackies in northwestern Ontario and a curious stalker during the U of M’s field school course. I was in Nunavik this summer, and although the geos carried shotguns on traverse, we were lucky enough not to meet any polar bears. Perhaps too far inland? A lot of caribou, though!

  4. February 28, 2011 7:41 pm

    Very interesting post. While literal cannibals are almost non existent, our species nonetheless remains diseased in some way that we don’t yet fully understand. We are destroying our only home in an effort to get short term comfort and like that blood covered psychopathic grizzly we have completely lost touch with how we were meant to live.

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