Natural Selection Nature Photography
By Mark J. Thomas
Polar Bear "Playing" with Sled Dog Story
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Unlikely Friends Indeed!

Why aren't these two natural adversaries fighting viciously? The answer is...nobody knows for sure.

During the long winter months in northern Manitoba Canada, dog teams are a common method of transportation. Many of these dogs live outside in conditions that would quickly kill an unprotected human. The bone-chilling cold, which can easily reach 40 degrees below zero, and howling winds, often above 40 mph, are not the only arctic perils faced by these dogs. They must also contend with the ever present danger of the largest carnivore on land, the polar bear. Each year, several hundred polar bears migrate northward along the western shore of Hudson's Bay. These migrating bears came ashore months earlier and hundreds of miles to the south as the sea ice broke up during the summer. With the exception of a few scraps they may have found along the way, these polar bears may not have eaten for as long as 5 months. 

Their migration northward takes the polar bears directly through the the area where many sled dogs are kept. This can lead to some tense encounters. There are usually about 40 dogs in this area at any given time. When a bear is spotted by the dogs, a chorus of loud, aggressive barking ensues. Normally, this is sufficient to keep the bears away. Once in a while, a trouble-making bear, usually a younger bear, comparable to a human teenager, ventures too close looking for food. All the dogs react with obvious aggression until the bear is scared away.

In very rare instances, a large, mature male polar bear will sometimes linger in the general vicinity of the dogs. Its temperament is usually somewhat less aggressive than that of its younger counterparts. In fact, a big bear often helps to keep the younger, "trouble-making" bears away. Although it may stay in the general area, the mature bear usually keeps its distance from the sled dogs. On very rare occasions, and no one is quite sure why, an amazing thing happens. One of these totally wild, mature male polar bears will actually seek out the company of one of the dogs. After seeing it with my own eyes, I can only describe it as "playing."  This does not happen very often, certainly not every year. Very few people have ever witnessed this event.

Here's how my experience unfolded...

I had been in northern Canada for about two weeks. It was my last day there and my flight out was around 4 pm. The prior two weeks had been very productive. Many of the other polar bear shots on my website were taken during that time. On this trip, I had been spending a lot of time in the area of the sled dogs. I had heard about rare, "friendly" encounters between polar bears and sled dogs, but I had never been fortunate enough to witness it. That was about to change.

My last day in Manitoba dawned like most November days there. The temperature was well below freezing and the sky was very overcast. I spent much of the morning looking for polar bears or foxes to photograph, with limited success. I decided to spend the remainder of my time near the dogs. Norbert Rosing, a photographer friend of mine from Germany arrived just as I did. A large male bear had been in the area for several days, but had made no gesture toward the dogs. Norbert and I stopped several hundred yards away so we wouldn't disturb the dogs or the bear. We brought our trucks side by side so we could talk to each other.

While we were talking, the big bear that we had been watching for days, got up and started walking toward the dogs. It was obvious that this bear was coming directly for one particular dog. Seeing this, I quickly maneuvered to where I thought would be a good vantage point, just in case. I steadied my camera and held my breath.

As the big bear began walking, all the dogs erupted into angry barking and growling. All the dogs, that is, except one. One dog didn't act aggressively toward the approaching polar bear at all. In fact, he was acting like he was happy to see the huge predator, easily 10 times his own size. Instead of barking aggressively, this one dog started wagging its tail and jumping around excitedly. Noticing the non-aggressive posture of this particular dog, the polar bear ignored the other 39 barking sets of beared teeth and made his way directly to this one dog. 

Both were a bit tentative at first. But after getting "acquainted," they began to play like two puppies. At no time was there the least bit of aggression from either the dog or the bear. It seemed that they were genuinely happy to see each other. Almost like they were old friends. They played together for about 10 minutes, when another amazing thing happened. The polar bear laid down near the dog and rolled over on his back. In the animal kingdom, especially in the world of predators such as bears and dogs, rolling over onto your back is a totally submissive posture. Dominance between individuals is decided in this way. So here's a 700 to 800 pound fully wild adult male polar bear submitting to a 75 to 80 pound, tethered dog. It was an amazing sight.

Shortly thereafter, the polar bear got up and ambled away. The entire encounter lasted maybe ten to fifteen minutes. When it was over, Norbert and I just looked at each other in amazement. A day that started out so gloomy had ended perfectly. I then rushed to the airport to catch my flight. It was almost as if the polar bear and the sled dog were giving me a going-away present. It was quite a gift.

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