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Polar Bear Flip-Flop: People Hated, Then Loved These Photos. What Changed?

Saturday, March 01, 2014 - 08:00 AM

Norbert Rosing /National Geographic/Getty

This couldn't be.

A 1,200 pound male polar bear (especially when it's autumn and he hasn't eaten for four months) doesn't make play-dates with an animal from another species. He doesn't arrive every afternoon to cuddle, nuzzle, hug and roll around with a dog. Brian Ladoon claimed it was happening, but Norbert Rosing thought Brian was smoking something. He wanted to see for himself.

Rosing was (and is) a famous nature photographer, who for a time specialized in polar bears. Back in 1991, Brian Ladoon owned a bunch of huskies and kept them loosely chained behind his house in Churchill, Manitoba. In the fall, hundreds of polar bears arrived in and around Churchill to wait for ice to form on nearby Hudson Bay. When it got cold enough, they'd walk, sometimes right through town, jump on the ice and sail out, looking for seals and fish to eat. On an autumn afternoon, Rosing settled down at Brian's house and waited for the bear he thought would never come.

But it came. Exactly as Brian had promised. In the video below, you can see Norbert's photos and hear them described by Stuart Brown, who proudly put them in a 1994 National Geographic article called "Animals at Play." You'd think these shots would have been a huge success. After all, just look at them...


Krista Tippett/YouTube

In fact, when these pictures were published, people hated them. Hated them. In his new book, Wild Ones, Jon Mooallem says photographer Rosing "was besieged by angry faxes and phone calls," from people who thought the photos couldn't be real, that the dog was probably put in the bear's path, "chained up as bait for the white monster." This wasn't play. This wasn't innocent. This was the prelude to a kill — "a sinister trap." The bear, they said, was about to spring and bite the dog; when the pictures stopped, the bear pounced. The dog, they imagined, was probably terrified. No one wanted to look at these photos, Rosing told Jon. "People just couldn't believe it," so he didn't try to sell them. He just stashed them away.

Jump Forward 13 Years

 But then, 13 years later, those very same pictures – as far as I know, nothing changed, nothing added — appeared in the video I've posted.

Public radio's Krista Tippett had invited Stuart Brown on her show, Speaking of Faith (now called On Being) to talk about animal play. Stuart showed her Norbert Rosing's photos, which were then put on line, and the reaction was a total flip-flop. This time, (2007), the audience wasn't angry, wasn't suspicious — on the contrary, people loved them. Loved them.They emailed the cuddling scenes to friends, and the play seemed totally plausible. "It's hard to believe this polar bear only needed to hug someone!" said one email Jon saw, which ended with, "May you always have ... friends that care." Krista's video, when I last looked, had 420,142 hits.

What Changed?

 What happened? How could people, maybe the same people, just 13 years later stare at the same pictures and feel so differently about them? Mooallem has a theory. In 1994, he thinks, polar bears were still thought of as proud, dangerous, scary animals. A decade earlier National Geographic put out a polar bear video called "Polar Bear Alert" that begins with a young couple pushing a stroller through Churchill, while Jason Robards, the narrator, describes the town as the "one place in the world where the great white bears roam the streets, dangerously immune to the presence of their only enemy ... man." The dad had a rifle around his shoulder. He needed to, because these bears attacked.

NatGeo's film was rich with bear clawings, bear murders. The most vivid scene was filmed in the tundra, when producer James Lipscomb was left alone in a rebar cage to await arriving polar bears. When they arrived and began snarling and clawing, he was in their faces, behind bars, filming. It was hot tape. It kicked off a vogue of cameraman-in-the-cage sequences in nature films about scary sharks, crocodiles, and grizzlies. This film made a particularly deep impression — that these animals were instinctive killers. Knowing that, feeling that, the sequence in Brian Ladoon's backyard made no sense. Vicious Lords of the Tundra don't nuzzle dogs.

Norbert Rosing via Krista Tippett/YouTube

Thirteen years later, polar bears hadn't changed, but our sense of them had. By 2007, most people had seen scenes of weak, starving bears struggling to stay on shrinking hunks of melting ice. The earth was warming and polar bears had no place to go. Suddenly, they were vulnerable, heading to extinction. Animals, says Mooallem are "free-roaming Rorschachs." We see them through the heavy filter of our own feelings, our own needs. And our filter for polar bears had flipped. Animals who'd once been proud and vicious had become "delicate, drowning" victims, lonely animals — who now just might need the companionship of a friendly husky — who might come to a backyard, looking for a hug.

Jon Mooallem believes that the stories we tell ourselves about animals totally color how we see them. "Emotion matters. Imagination matters, and we are free to spin whatever stories we want about them." The wild animals, he says, "always have no comment."


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Comments [12]

Pat Moran from Texas

To kev: and let's not forget the ice cream bars, too, use polar bears in advertisement......mmmmm, love those Kl***ike bars!

Mar. 26 2014 10:34 AM
Andrew Potter from Huntsville, Alabama

So much of what we think we know is merely what we imagine.

Mar. 14 2014 08:45 AM

Re several other comments below.
I was lucky enough to go on a trip to Churchill with the Great Bear Foundation, and while they are certainly not cuddly teddy bears, polar bears eat almost exclusively seal blubber; they actually leave the rest uneaten. So they wouldn't consider a dog food, and though the dogs are certainly killed sometimes it is not because they consider them food, or at the least would not go out of their way to hunt them. Most attacks happen when a bear has gotten too used to humans and become too aggressive, or when irresponsible people try to attract them to the dogs with other food and they get possessive that way. Most bears in Churchill are in walking hibernation and will scavenge sometimes but aren't in hunting mode until they get out onto the ice.
There are certainly problem bears that are aggressive but that is a minority and usually the result of being too acclimated to human settlements.
I thought it was important to clarify that the dogs are not either playmates or food, it is more complicated than that.

Mar. 08 2014 12:59 AM
Yvonne from Hollywood, CA

I am tired of people accusing others of anthropomorphizing animals. In school, in biology class, we were told that animals other than humans had only three goals in life: To eat, to procreate, and to survive. Anyone who has had any relationship with an animal knows this is patently untrue. Humans did not spontaneously pop up out of a vacuum. We have evolved from other life forms. The accusation of "anthropomorphizing" reminds me of the religious right who claim that only humans can get into heaven. (As a side note, what kind of heaven would that be if we can't hook up with our departed pets or befriend new ones.)

Mar. 06 2014 04:39 PM

A polar bear hadn't eaten for months plays with a dog. Very well! Let us not anthropomorphize though. It could have easily turned out this way, in a situation when the polar bear is hungry and encounters what appears to be another species made up of flesh that could turn into dinner.
Not Suitable For Viewing if you don't have the stomach for this kind of thing: (you've been warned)

Mar. 05 2014 08:53 PM

A polar bear hadn't eaten for months plays with a dog. Very well! Let us not anthropomorphize though. It could have easily turned out this way, in a situation when the polar bear is hungry and encounters what appears to be another species made up of flesh that could turn into dinner.
Not Suitable For Viewing if you don't have the stomach for this kind of thing: (you've been warned)

Mar. 05 2014 08:51 PM
Mark Caponigro from Morningside Heights, NYC

I am reading Jon Mooallem's book right now, so do not yet know what to think on how human beings' perception and evaluation of animals change, and how that might be manipulated (?) for the sake of benefitting the animals.

But these two things seem true: (1) On the one hand, videos have been made, by callous and self-interested persons, the creation of which did indeed put animals at least at risk of injury, and might actually have resulted in the animals' being harmed; (2) on the other hand, it is of great interest and importance to those of us who promote animal-protection ethics, and who want accurately to determine the nature of animals' "sentience" and "intelligence," to observe as many cases as we can of inter-species affection or friendship.

Mar. 04 2014 06:52 PM
Valerie from North Carolina

I'm glad to see people embracing polar bears, maybe it will help save them and in turn us. The only thing about these and other similar photos is that they never show the times that the bears kill the dogs. And yes it does happen. These bears are still NOT cuddly or teddy bears, they are hungry bears who can and will kill anything they think is food.

Mar. 04 2014 06:32 PM

Seeing that another famous photographer, Tom Mangelsen, has a limited edition print of a dog and bear, which sold out rather quickly, I'm guessing the so-called "hatred" of Rosing's images wasn't a widely shared feeling. (

Mar. 03 2014 08:23 PM

People simply believe what they WANT to believe in regard to any topic in the world. Local cultural norms and trends are the usual means of exposure to topics, and why so many people act like sheep in their beliefs, going for what will help them be accepted in their social groups instead of thinking rationally, based on facts alone.

Mar. 03 2014 05:17 PM
KS from Ft. Collins, CO

I wonder how much of this may have to do with internet culture and our exposure through internet and television media to inter-species friendships. This example was used in a show on Animal Planet to talk about unlikely animal friends.

Mar. 03 2014 01:44 PM

Plus a certain multinational soft drinks company put cuddly polar bears in their advertisements.

Mar. 03 2014 01:11 PM

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