A creature with ‘peculiar sagacity’

Paul Sparkes
Send to a friend

Send this article to a friend.

Polar bears are as smart as they are beautiful and brutish

“The wilds of Newfoundland are tenanted by numerous fur-bearing animals, affording a great source of gain to some of the fishermen who in winter turn furriers.

“Arctic foxes are here in all their variety. Beavers, once nearly extirpated but now unmolested owing to the low value of their fur, are increasing in numbers. Brown bears are pretty numerous and polar bears sometimes find their way to the northern promontory of the island upon the ice which comes drifting down in spring from Davis’s Straits.”

Back in the mid-19th century, a German scientist turned author collected a vast amount of information on the Earth’s two polar regions. He published popular books and made something of a name for himself in the process. He was Georg Hartwig (1813-1880) who not only gave his readers the big picture of these vast stretches of the little-known world, but looked closely and with anecdotes strengthened his statements. In his description of Newfoundland and Labrador, he has a fascinating mix of observations:

“By way of contrast, in hot summers, the tropical hummingbird has been known to visit the southern shores of Newfoundland. Reindeer are abundant, but, unfortunately their enemies, the wolves, have likewise increased in number since the reward given by the Colonial Government for their destruction has ceased to be paid.”

(“The Birds of Newfoundland,” published under the auspices of the Government of Newfoundland some 60 years ago, has this note on the hummingbird: “Leslie M. Tuck, dominion wildlife officer for Newfoundland, carefully observed a male ruby-throated hummingbird feeding on delphiniums at close range from July 29 to Aug. 8, 1939, at Shoal Harbour. It fed daily between 6 and 7 a.m. but was not seen at other times.”)

The photograph with this column shows a white bear which came ashore in Newfoundland fairly recently. Unfortunately for this young, 484-pound hungry animal, it came dangerously close to people at Twillingate who had collected to watch it on the ice. The following is from a visitor’s brochure which I picked up in Twillingate/Durrell:

“Arctic ice floes brought this young polar bear to the Town of Twillingate. In the evening of March 6, 2000, a startled resident saw the bear through a kitchen window and raised the alarm. The rambling bear criss-crossed the harbour ice and eventually approached a large crowd that had gathered at the fish plant wharf in the centre of town. Considering the threat of injury or loss of life to the public, officials were forced to destroy the animal. A second bear was farther out from the town and wildlife officials were able to tranquilize it and transport it to safety. The citizens of Twillingate mounted a campaign to keep the first bear in the town as a permanent memorial of a rare visit and the rare beauty of this lord of the north. Visit the Durrell Museum to see this magnificent animal on display.”

I have learned that visitors to the museum sometimes take great exception to seeing this mounted bear; museum organizers have sometimes been called cruel — and the like. But in response to such criticism, museum personnel will point out that a tranquilizing gun was not readily at hand and that the animal (as most of us know) can be vicious and was dangerously close to community and people. In short, wise people knew there was no other option but to kill it.  

I am also given to understand that visitors also express an affection for the big, furry, stuffed creature. That said, it is not difficult to see it is a killing machine. Its size, strength, claws and jaws — to say nothing of its ability to stand tall on its hind legs — will tell you this.

It is not difficult to see that author Hartwig (way back 145 years ago) was, perhaps, equal parts entrepreneur and scientist. He sounds like he was just as interested in selling books as he was in describing scientific discoveries. The following occurs in another part of his polar bear account:

“His favourite food is the seal, which he surprises, crouching down with his forepaws doubled underneath, and pushing himself noiselessly forward with his hinder legs until within a few yards, when he springs upon his victim, whether in the water or upon the ice. … Though he attacks man when hungry, wounded, or provoked, he will not injure him when food more to his liking is at hand.”

But as he is a scientist, Hartwig provides evidence:

“Sir Francis M’Clintock relates an anecdote of a native of Upernavik (northwestern Greenland) who was out one dark winter’s day visiting his seal nets. He found a seal entangled, and whilst kneeling down over it upon the ice to get it clear, he received a slap on the back — from his companion as he supposed; but a second and heavier blow made him look smartly round. He was horror-stricken to see a peculiarly grim old bear instead of his comrade. Without taking further notice of the man, bruin tore the seal out of the net and began his supper. He was not interrupted, nor did the man wait to see the meal finished, fearing, no doubt, that his uninvited and unceremonious guest might keep a corner for him.”

For those who might consider the preserved shell of the bear at Durrell as a monument to a tragedy involving (what is, essentially) a beautiful creature, here is a little something more to admire in what the museum refers to as “the lord of the North.” The animal is intelligent, as this old account in the book proves:

“Many instances have been observed of the peculiar sagacity of the polar bear. The captain of a whaler, being anxious to procure a bear without wounding the skin, made trial of the stratagem of laying the noose of a rope in the snow, and placing a piece of whale’s carcass within it. A bear, ranging the neighbouring ice, was soon enticed to the spot. Approaching the bait, he seized it in his mouth; but his foot, at the same moment by a jerk of the rope, being entangled in the noose, he pushed it off with the adjoining paw, and deliberately retired. After having eaten the piece, he returned. The noose, with another piece of whale’s carcass being then replaced, he pushed the rope aside, and again walked triumphantly off with the piece. A third noose was laid, and this time the rope was buried in the snow, and the bait laid in a deep hole dug in the centre. But bruin, after snuffing about the place for a few minutes, scraped the snow away with his paw, threw the rope aside, and escaped unhurt with his prize.”

Note: Dr. Hartwig’s descriptions of Newfoundland were the subject of two columns published in November 2010.

Paul Sparkes is a longtime journalist intrigued by the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. Email: psparkes@thetelegram.com.

Organizations: Durrell Museum

Geographic location: Newfoundland and Labrador, Arctic, Twillingate Shoal Harbour Upernavik

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5

Thanks for voting!

Top of page