Thursday 14 December 2023

Polar Bears the Great Wanderers

The bear is a great wanderer not solely because it travels far, but because it travels with curiosity, and tirelessly. The Eskimo hunters in Greenland mean that it covers the ground successfully and intelligently when they pronounce the word pisugtooq.

Eskimos, long-time, keen observers of the polar bear, have advanced other thoughts about polar bears that science has treated with skepticism, and in some quarters with cynical disdain. Eskimos widely assert, for example, that most polar bears are left-pawed, that if one must leap in desperation from a charging bear it should always be to the bear’s right.6 Eskimos have also asserted that polar bears push blocks of ice ahead of them as shields when they are stalking seals; that a wounded bear will staunch the flow of its blood with snow; that they will hurl ice and rocks at walrus to wound and distract them, hoping to snatch an unprotected calf; and that females use anal plugs when they den.

Refuting any of these things is a complicated business. It becomes not only a denial of the integrity of the person telling the story, but a denial of the resourcefulness of the polar bear. Too, because of poor translations, you might end up refuting something that was never meant. The best field biologists, with a fundamental grasp of the animal’s behavior, take the attitude that these things could happen, though they themselves have not seen them. The anthropologist Richard Nelson has offered succinct advice on this issue. “Eskimos,” he writes, “are highly reliable observers of animal behavior, and many of their least believable statements have been proved to me by personal observation.” Some scientists strongly resisted the notion that bears might use tools until a Canadian biologist found evidence in 1972, on the north coast of Devon Island, that a female with two cubs had smashed in the roof of a ringed-seal lair with a 45-pound piece of ice. Scientists have also found that bears intentionally stalk small prey like lemmings, which Eskimos have long claimed they do. And that a polar bear will hunt sea ducks by coming up underneath a flock of them in the water like a killer whale.
Barry Lopez, Arctic Dreams: Imagination and Desire in a Northern Landscape  (New York: Open Road Integrated Media, 2013; 1986). p.101.