A viral video of a polar bear petting a sled dog had the internet swooning on November 16. The video, which was reported on by CBC, shows a polar bear sitting close to a tied-up dog and then raising its paw to pat the dog. The reaction: excitement from some internet commenters over the “cuteness” of what was going on, and accusations of animal cruelty from others.
Andrew Derocher, a biology professor at the University of Alberta and specialist in polar bear ecology, spoke with us about the video, the context behind it, and what we should make of it. Biology students may recognize Derocher from a few upper-level courses in the department — this year, he’s teaching BIOL 366 (Northern Ecology) and ZOOL 408 (Biology of Mammals).
The Gateway: How does a polar come to be this close to a dog and interact this way?
Andrew Derocher: So it’s a little weird, there’s no question. Just as some background, there’s a lot of controversy around the dogs and the polar bears up there. The fellow who keeps the dogs tries to make some money off of it, so it’s an unusual situation in that you’re not allowed to bait polar bears. But of course, if you’re feeding your dogs and bears come to get leftover food — is it baiting or not? And so the Manitoba government is always sort of skating on thin ice here. He’s got a permit to use the land. A lot of people would like to see it moved and fenced to keep the bears and dogs away.
So what’s a normal bear-dog relationship like?
One of the problems is that everybody sort of likes that cute image of the bear, you know, patting the dog. What they don’t show is that very often, the dogs are absolutely vicious to the bears. I’ve seen polar bears with their ears almost ripped off by sled dogs like these, but this was in the Norwegian Arctic. Similarly, polar bears kill the dogs and eat them, and I think right around this time, it also came out that this same guy lost a dog, killed by a polar bear and probably eaten would be my guess. So there’s a lot of that sort of dynamic.
What are some of the implications of these bears being fed like this, intentional or not?
The area where the video was filmed, Churchill, is right on a migration route. The bears come from Wapusk National Park, south of Churchill … If there’s no ice in Hudson Bay, they tend to keep moving north, past the town of Churchill towards Nunavut, where the first town they hit is Arviat. If they don’t run into people, what’s the first thing they hit outside of town? It’s dogs, and those dogs are being fed, and the polar bears walk right into the middle of them … What do you do? You shoot the bear. So at the end of the day, there’s no benefit to the bear or the dogs. The bears will probably have a higher mortality rate by being fed around those dogs.
Is this issue caused by more than just one man leaving food out for his sled dogs?
No, it’s just him. It’s really just him. There are other people. I mean, he says he’s saving the Canadian Eskimo sled dog, but I’m not convinced of that. I’ve never seen evidence of him using the dogs. He just chains them out and charges people who go watch the bears and photograph the bears around the dogs. He’s been there for decades. He’s started building a castle, like a stone castle in Churchill years ago. He’s kind of a character, a local character, you know.
Do you have any concerns about how this will affect public perception of bears?
People gravitate to the unusual things. If it’s polar bears, people all of a sudden pay attention. But if it’s something weird about a polar bear, it’s like they’re just all over it. So if it’s cannibalism, or something weird about their sex organs, or something like polar bears playing with dogs or a polar bear in an unusual place — you know, a polar bear shows up in Iceland and it makes the news. It’s clear that this is novel, but I think in terms of changing people’s perceptions, I think that people generally think polar bears are pretty dangerous.