Last night I abruptly finished blogging so I could join a group for a night cap. My intention was to continue with details and stories from the day, but you’ll recall I’m hanging out people who do not understand why I’m spending “so much time on the computer.” When I remind them why I’m sharing these stories, they ease up a bit. But when you mix whisky with mountain people, this city girl doesn’t stand a chance – there are no excuses that will suffice not to join them.
It’s a good thing I did join the group though. Aside from a lot of laughs and stories, we learned some additional news about the polar bears and dogs we saw “playing” yesterday. It turns out that at least one of the dogs was killed during the encounter and several others may have been injured. It’s important to tell this part of the story because it’s the part nobody wants to talk about. People want to do what I did last night and share the “cute dog and bear pictures.” And many people probably aren’t aware of the full story. Thankfully, I’m traveling with scientists and people who know this community well and were able to educate us further about what had happened. So here’s the story:
There’s a man in Churchill, Brian Ladoon, who owns a large piece of property that he keeps fenced in. He charges people to take them on his property to see polar bears. How does he guarantee there will be bears on the property? Well, he also keeps sled dogs on the property and I’m told he leaves excessive food out for the dogs. The left-over food attracts the hungry bears, so there are typically quite a few bears in the area. In fact, while we never paid to go on his property (and never would) we’ve looked over the gate and seen bears here. The two sleeping bears were on his property, as well as the mom and cub we saw traversing the tundra to get to the property.
Last night I spoke with several scientists who saw the interaction we did and here’s what they believe happened: the mom and cub came onto the property to get the food. They knew the food was there and they knew the dogs – they were clearly heading straight that direction and continued on their way as soon as they got the food. When the dogs barked and tried to guard the food, the mom wanted to protect her cub, so she pounced on them or tapped them with a paw. Everyone I spoke with agrees the bear had no intention of killing the dogs – she could have done that easily. She was merely trying to get food and protect her cub. In terms of what a bear can do, she was relatively gentle with the dogs, but it only takes one swipe of the paw for a bear to kill or severely injure an animal the size of a dog. Once she got her food, the mom and cub continued on their path and left the area.
I’m happy to have learned this and to be able to share it with you. There have previously been several stories and pictures circulating online that show dogs and bears as “friends.” While the bear didn’t intentionally hurt the dogs, they’re not friends either. They’re animals sharing space, struggling to survive with limited resources. Evidently the organizations in Churchill are aware of the many problems caused by this man who is luring the bears onto his property, but they’ve yet to do anything about it. It’s a very small town and many people speculate that the man who owns the property is either a friend or a relative of people who work at the institutions who are supposed to regulate this. So it’s a political, turn-the-other-cheek game as opposed to stopping this activity.
Other information that was shared with me last night:
- Most of the sled dog companies here lose no more than 1-2 dogs per year (usually due to the elements or illness). The man who owns that property for “bear tours” loses an average of 20 dogs per year — all due to bear attacks.
- Brian Ladoon (who owns the property) claims to run a humane dog breeding business. Yet, his dogs are compromised daily by his polar bear practices
- People are not supposed to feed the bears. If you’re caught feeding a bear, you will be arrested and fined. Essentially, Brian feeds the bears daily by leaving excessive food out “for the dogs.”
Here’s what I know from my experience in Churchill:
- If you want to see polar bears, you do NOT need to pay some guy to go on his property. The bears live here and you can typically see quite a few every day, roaming the Hudson Bay area. They sometimes come into town or down to the Northern Studies Center (where we’re staying). But they’re almost always visible along the shoreline of the Bay. This is one of the places with the highest concentration of bears anywhere in the world.
- So if you do come here, please do NOT give that man business
- An alternative to see more bears is to take a Tundra Buggy tour. This is controversial as well due to negative impact on the environment and socializing of the bears. However, there are a couple tour companies who come HIGHLY recommended by bear conservationists and scientists. These companies are committed to minimizing environmental impact and teaching people about the bears (as opposed to a show and tell, safari-esque tour)
I’m going on a Tundra Buggy tour tomorrow and will share stories and photos from that experience. The company we’re using is one of the eco-friendly tours, of course!
Also, a group of us (with “help”) are making a coordinated effort to bring facts about the polar bear/dog property owner to organizations who should be regulating this. Due to the political nature of the small community, this needs to be taken to institutions outside of Churchill. The pictures we took yesterday actually are helpful in documenting what happened. And it’s fine for people to see the pictures of dogs and bears side-by-side as long as we all understand what I learned last night. These animals shouldn’t actually be co-mingling.
After much discussion about this topic (and a few drinks), other stories were shared with us. Stories of bears that have broken into public buildings and raided the kitchens, bears that have climbed onto the roof of buildings waiting to pounce on the next human who walks out the door, people who have nearly escaped bear attacks. It’s sobering to hear these stories, but essential that we do. When you’re face to face with the bears (as we have been), or watching them at play, observing their curiosity and intelligence, it’s natural to think they’re cute. And they ARE cute! It makes people want to cuddle the bears, pet the bears, take them home as pets. But part of the reason we’re attracted to the bears is their sheer power and we need to remember this. They are magnificent, beautiful, clever, and intelligent animals. They’re also very dangerous!
We have a lecture now (there’s a lot more to learn), but I’ll try to post more tonight. We had some fun, snowy adventures today. Also, I have some simple steps we can all take to help with polar bear and Arctic conservation. I’ll post those at the end of the week. It doesn’t take much to make a significant impact and affect positive change.
By the way, I’m here 2 more days. If you have any questions you’d like answered by the scientists who accompany me, post them here and I’ll post responses for you.