Sunday, March 20, 2011

In Defense of Polar Bears

After focusing primarily on grizzlies and black bears in previous posts, I felt it was high time that the polar bears got to have their say in the matter. This is a post that I've been wanting to do for the better part of a year but it's been a long process tracking down all the source material and compiling all of the pertinent information, because - of all the bears - we seem to know the least about the polar bear. One thing that most people do seem to agree on is that the polar bear is the most predatory of the main three in North America, the only one that will frequently regard people as a food source. But is this really true? Despite a few nasty encounters, including some predatory attacks, evidence suggests that this is not the norm.

While bears are primarily classified as omnivores, the polar bear is the only one that is a true carnivore, a necessity due to the lack of vegetation in their icy environment. This is what leads to the common thought that they will usually prey on man, though polar bear attack statistics are extremely low when compared to grizzlies and black bears. While it is true that this is mostly due to the fact that man and polar bear share very little space together, it could also be an indication that the polar bear is not as aggressive as it is often thought to be.

In The World of the Polar Bear, Norwegian Thor Larsen says that he has experienced at least a dozen attacks from polar bears, but that all of them were provoked. Russian researcher Nikita Ovsyanikov, who lived and walked with the polar bears of Wrangel Island and who wrote two invaluable books about the experience - Living With The White Bear and Polar Bears - has had over fifteen hundred encounters with these animals and says that only three of those encounters were with bears that tried to kill him. Even then, he says that he made mistakes that provoked that behavior. In all three incidents, he says that he was able to stop the attacks by carrying a stick, behaving in a confident and aggressive manner, making himself look larger with his parka, and using pepper spray, which has a 100% success rate against polar bears due to the sensitivity of their extremely keen noses (they can often scent seals from up to 25 miles away).

Polar bears can often be the most curious of all bears and have been known to follow people across ice flows, wander into camps, and even poke their heads into tents. With the image of a man-eater in mind, these bears are usually killed right away, without even signs of aggression being apparent. So is the polar bear that peeks inside your tent looking for a meal, or is he simply curious about what's inside? In 1978, Naomi Uemura made the first solo trek into the North Pole and wrote about the experience in National Geographic. He tells the story of a polar bear that entered his camp and approached his tent. Tucked away in his sleeping bag, Uemura was sure he was doomed, particularly when the bear began shredding the tent. However, after one sniff of Uemura in his sleeping bag, the bear turned and padded away.

In October of 2003, the nuclear submarine USS Honolulu surfaced near the North Pole. A lookout onboard spotted three polar bears nearby, who promptly wandered over to the strange thing and began to curiously investigate it, showing no fear, despite having never seen such an object before. In 1990, Nikita Ovsyanikov was reading in his cabin on Wrangel Island one night and suddenly found that the structure was surrounded by polar bears who were peering in the windows and pawing at the walls. Ovsyanikov simply went outside, shooed the bears away, and closed the shutters. Charles Jonkel wrote of tranquilized and captured polar bears, saying that they were as docile as black bears when approached by investigators. Many other researchers who work with the bears on the ice flow have said that they are no more aggressive than the average North American black bear. The gentle side of the polar bear can even be seen in a series of remarkable photographs in which one of the white bears returned to a campsite every night for a week to play, wrestle, and cuddle with a chained-up sled dog (see photos above).

Churchill, Manitoba is considered to be the polar bear capital of the world but there have only been two recorded attacks there since 1717. The locals do face many problem bears, though, but they are easily deterred. More info and even a few amusing stories of face-to-face encounters can be found at the website for Polar Bears International:

Polar bears are also considered to be one of the most intelligent of all bears, as Else Poulsen shows in her wonderful book Smiling Bears. One of her captive polar bears pointedly demonstrated to her why frozen chickens don't make acceptable toys: they thaw out in water. The bear demonstrated this by first catching and holding Else's attention, then using her paw to slosh the bird around in the pool until it thawed, and then slapping it out of the water to show that it would fall apart.

I've shown throughout the course of this blog that there is much we don't understand about bears - all bears - but I think it's very clear that there's even more we don't understand about polar bears. We've come a long way in how we think about black bears, we're still working on changing how we think about grizzlies (though the tide is turning), but we still have a long way to go before we appropriately change our way of thinking about polar bears. That's why it's time to give them the chance to say their piece.

Interesting tidbits: Polar bears are only found near the North Pole, not Antarctica. An easy way to remember this is to keep in mind that the word "arctic" comes from the Greek word for "bear", while the word "antarctic" is from the Greek meaning "without bear".

References and recommended reading:

Smiling Bears by Else Poulsen, 2009
On Thin Ice by Richard Ellis, 2009
Polar Bears: Living With The White Bear by Nikita Ovsyanikov, 1996
Polar Bears by Nikita Ovsyanikov, 1998
Polar Bears International:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

The Great Bear Conundrum

In The Grizzly Maze by Nick Jans, author, photographer, and biologist Matthias Breiter says that the more he learns about bears, the less sure of them he is. He says, "If someone asks me why a bear did something, I'll say I don't know. Years ago I would have known." I admit there are times when I feel the same way.

As you delve deeper into the bear world, the first and principle thing you learn is what a conundrum they are, like a jigsaw puzzle that never quite comes together, and these apparent contradictions in behavior become more unavoidable the further you go. Some people get frustrated with this, throw up their hands and walk away, while others struggle to make these contradictory pieces all fit together within the larger picture. That's not always easy to do.

Of all the bear species, the grizzly may actually be the easiest to pin down. The bears along the coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia are generally the most docile and the most tolerant of people - as are those in areas with little to no hunting - whereas the grizzlies of interior Alaska, where food supplies are scarce, and Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks, where there has been a long and dark history of confrontation between man and bear, are more aggressive and often more predatory. Of course none of this accounts for individual personality, temperament, and experience which can all dictate how a bear behaves in a particular situation.

The black bear, however, is not as clearly defined, considering how dramatically their temperaments change according to geographic location. Through the work of Lynn Rogers, Terry DeBruyn, Benjamin Kilham and others, we've clearly seen how typically docile the black bear is across the eastern half of the lower 48 states. In these areas, there have been very few black bear attacks, yet the animal is unfairly demonized. There are many examples of black bears and humans peacefully co-existing, with the bears apparent aggressiveness only manifesting as "bluff" behavior. The bears usually do whatever they can to avoid confrontations and prefer to end things peacefully. In other words, they seem to react to an encounter with us the same way we would react to an encounter with them: with the desire to get out of the situation alive and unscathed!

As we move farther west, though, the black bears aggressiveness increases slightly. While it can't be said for sure, it's possible that this is a result of the drier and more desolate conditions of the west and how that impacts potential food sources. There have been a slightly larger number of black bear attacks in the west and northwest than anywhere along the eastern seaboard. Progressing further north into Oregon and Washington, black bears are a more formidable presence than they are in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Moving even further north into British Columbia, the coastal black bears and those inhabiting the offshore islands are as docile as those in the eastern United States, obviously because of the rich abundance of food sources. Moving into northern interior B.C., though, the black bear suddenly becomes a very different animal, one that is sometimes compared to the tigers of Asia. Here the bear is much more predatory and has been responsible for a number of deaths and injuries. As an example, from 1978 to 1994, there were 27 attacks and 2 fatalities attributed to grizzlies, whereas there were 78 attacks and 9 fatalities attributed to black bears in the same time period. In the worst of these attacks, killing sprees were evident, with the bears killing multiple victims and caching the bodies. These bears have also been known to attack in defense of kill sites and cubs, something that has not been observed in the more docile eastern U.S. black bears. It's theorized that this increased aggression and predatory drive is a direct result of isolation and lack of contact with people, but some researchers point out that many black bears in Alaska live in those same conditions and are fifty times less aggressive than the inland B.C. bear. It's now speculated that there could be something genetic behind this level of viciousness. Even though grizzlies typically despise black bears, I have to wonder if perhaps some crossbreeding between the two species may have resulted in a more aggressive genetic strain, though there is no evidence to support the idea.

What makes this an even bigger conundrum is the fact that there is no one easy answer to explain this, something that I've found to be true in a number of bear-related incidents that I've heard of. Any of the above mentioned possibilities could be explanations or maybe these black bears are more aggressive as a result of their having to co-exist with grizzlies, who often prey on the smaller bears or kill them just for fun. Maybe this is what keeps them on edge and willing to attack, but these conditions also exist in Alaska and the black bears there seem more reclusive because of it. Either way, it's important information to be aware of, as many of those who have fallen victim to these abnormal black bears are visitors from the U.S. who live with their more docile cousin and who expect the same characteristics to be prominent throughout the species.