Svalbard: The Polar Bear Story

Svalbard has a great reputation for polar bears but in fact, you almost certainly won’t see one. They very rarely venture anywhere near Longyearbyen. But in late 2014, one did and having heard this story from three different people, let me tell you the story of the Longyearbyen Polar Bear.

Just outside the main town but before the end of the polar bear safe zone, there is a dog yard, where dozens of sled dogs live. Next to the dogs are some huts, containing the necessaries for this job – warm clothes, leads, chains, harnesses, spare parts probably, and dog food.

One day a polar bear strayed into this dog yard. Polar bears don’t like dogs – if you meet a bear while out sledding, you can probably scare it off with your dogs – and it hadn’t made any attempt to attack them but it had noticed the storage huts. It had stood on its back legs and pressed its sticky nose against the window to have a look inside and then it spotted some blocks of dog food left outside, blocks of meat some 20kg each. It helped itself to as many as it could carry and settled down on the hillside to eat it.

The various owners of the dogs chased it away and the polar bear went, unseen, down to the beach to sleep off its massive meal.

The next day, feeling hungry again, it raided the dog yard a second time. It was met by one of the dog owners, tired, lazy, hugely overfed and not at all interested in the human being staring back at it.

Now they had a problem: a polar bear who knew where there was free food for the taking and wasn’t going to be frightened away from its prize. There are only two ways of dealing with a problematic bear. What they did was shoot it with a tranquilising dart, load it into a helicopter and fly it to the other end of the island – a message that finally seemed to get into its head, as it’s never been back.

The postscript to the whole thing is that dogfood doesn’t agree with polar bears’ stomachs and although it didn’t even stir from its drugged sleep on the helicopter, it still managed to make quite a mess and the pilots reportedly said the flight back was the longest one they’ve ever had the misfortune to be stuck with.

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