Every once in a while when I'm out in the field with my dog, Daisy, she spots some small critter and turns it into a snack before I can say "NO" and before it can run to safety, I'm reminded how harsh life is for wild animals. I tell Daisy not to chase the poor little animals that have to struggle in harsh conditions for a meal when she gets 2 squares, plus snacks and a temperpedic bed by the heater each day, but she never listens, it's instinct for predators to chase prey. And even top predators face dangerous, life threatening conditions.
While traveling in Churchill Manitoba to see the polar bears, I was reminded of this harsh reality during a particularly harrowing scene that played out from the windows of the large rovers where we're observing the bears.
Polar bears give birth to their young in dens where they are born blind, deaf and hairless, not completely ready to survive outside the womb. There, the mother bear nurses them without ever leaving until they are ready to leave the den. Once the mother leaves the den the cubs, they will live with her, learning and being protected for up to 2 years. In the first year, they must wait at the shores of the Hudson Bay for the ice to form, where she will teach them how to hunt for seals, which bear will eat all winter until the ice breaks up. Polar bears then spend a few months on land between July and November without eating at all, waiting for the ice to form again and begin feeding again.
The biggest threats to cubs are male polar bears who, if hungry enough, will predate on the small cubs, or try to separate them from their mother in order to cause her to go into estrus so they can mate with her and produce their own cubs. There is a reason we humans wise "mother bear" to describe our own maternal feelings of protection when our children are hurt or threatened, and the mother polar bear will fight with all she has to protect her cubs, according to our guide.Katie, on our Natural Habitat trip.
One afternoon, we we traveling along trying to spot polar bears when we spotted a mother bear snoozing cozily with 2 cubs of the year (under 1 year old) in a stand of low willows. They did not move a muscle and unlike other mother and cub groups we had seen, did not even stir to rearrange their pile of polar bear bodies during the time we watched them.
After a short while we noticed a large male bear walking in the other direction from them start to lift his head and sniff. He plodded along at steady but slow pace, that our guide told us is the ideal pace to minimize energy expenditure and keep from overheating. But the large male clearly scented the mother and cubs and was changing direction, following his nose heading towards them.
As he made his way closer and closer to them, our group of 16 stood silently with cameras and binoculars raised wondering how this would unfold. Surely, the small mother bear and her small cubs would smell him coming, and move on. But even we humans with poor noses could tell by the Arctic wind on our faces, that she was upwind of the huge male, and his scent would not carry to her. We had seen a mother bear hustle much larger cubs off from a male much farther away earlier in our trip. But we did not think she could outrun this huge bear with these small cubs if she didn't get moving soon, and yet she and the tiny cubs slept on as the large male moved closer.
Our group, prohibited from making even a whisper in the presence of the bears for fear of habituating them to human voices, looked from lumbering male bear to the snoozing family with increasing dread. We all knew this was the wild, that nature would have play out however it was meant to be. But none of us was rooting for the male bear, and we hoped we would not see a bloody scene.
As the tension built, cameras and eyes swung from the male, to the family, and back, the male bear closing fast, not a quarter mile from the vulnerable cubs, when suddenly she awoke and broke into a run in the same moment. Her cubs did not need even a second to mimic their mother, literally up and running at full speed from sound asleep in less time than our eyes could register.
The mama and cubs tore through the willowy tundra and stopped only for the briefest moment right behind our rover, pausing so quickly to stand on hind legs to sniff for the male still plodding after her, that her cub tumbled into her and toppled to the ground. They immediately hustled off towards the shoreline at a fast clip.
The male lumbered by us, right behind the rover, never changing his pace, but clearly scenting the mother and cubs along the way. After passing the road, he seemed to have expended enough energy, his close call with the young cubs thwarted, he nestled into the willows to cool off.
The mother and young cubs continued their brisk pace away from the large male, their nap interrupted, looking for another place to rest until the ice forms on the Hudson Bay and seal hunting can begin, he huge maletmaking the cubs less vulnerable as prey themselves.