Polar bear fed by oil workers may be placed in a zoo

Polar bear fed by oil workers may be placed in a zoo

2 December 2014

A female polar bear that has continued to return to an oil workers’ settlement in the Nenets Autonomous Area (NAA) may be placed in a zoo.


“Workers used to leave food for the bear, so the animal developed a strong reflex that it can always find something to eat where people live without much effort,” Ivan Agapitov, deputy chief of the NAA Department for Natural Resources and Environmental Protection, explained.


Rosprirodnadzor, the Russian federal agency responsible for enforcing environmental regulations, is currently preparing documents authorising the developer, Lukoil Komi, to catch the rare animal. The idea is to place it temporarily in an enclosed space or a cage to make sure the workers are safe before deciding what to do next. But the likeliest scenario, according to Agapitov, involves finding a suitable place for the bear in captivity.


Comment by Nikita Ovsyanikov (DSc Biology), leading polar bear expert and Honoured Polar Explorer of Russia


By the time I learnt about this incident, the bear had already been immobilised and taken to an island far from the drilling base. It was easy to predict that the bear would return, even if it had not been fed. And it did return fairly quickly. One of our national TV channels ran the story. The newscaster said that the workers had received proper instruction on how to deal with polar bears. Here is one of the tips they were given: “If a bear is going to attack you, fall to the ground and play dead.”  


It’s my responsibility to warn any naïve TV viewers who saw this report that following this advice will ensure that you don’t make it out of the encounter alive. Moreover, the polar bear will be shot for killing a human.


This is a widespread tip for dealing with brown bears in North America, which is  probably where the authors of those terrible instructions for oil workers got the idea. But unlike polar bears, brown bears are predominantly herbivores, so the thinking is that by demonstrating submissiveness you may convince the bear that you have no aggressive intentions, and the bear might get scared by the scent of the human and walk away. This may work with certain brown bears, though I doubt it, but it certainly won’t with a polar bear. In fact, it’s guaranteed to result in an attack. Polar bears are predators, so playing dead is like serving yourself up on a platter. Even if the bear didn’t want to attack originally, the sight of easy prey might change its mind.


From the video shown in the news, it appears that the bear is a young female exhibiting normal behaviour. It shrinks from humans when something scares it, yet keeps coming back because it knows it may get food from people hiding inside their homes.


Unfortunately, situations like this happen all the time: a polar bear roams into a human settlement in the Arctic, people start to feed the bear in order to photograph it, and so the animal, which doesn’t know any better, decides to keep coming back to this source. Why not? It’s difficult to hunt for food in the Arctic, and here food is laid out for you! People move far back from their windows for safety, but in doing so, they provoke the bear to jump at the windows. After that, it is much more difficult to drive the animal away, because polar bears are obstinate by nature, especially when it comes to procuring food. After all, they couldn’t survive in the Arctic or hunt seals beneath thick ice without perseverance. The workers actually put the poor female bear at risk by feeding her and luring her to their base.


However, even a polar bear that’s been fed by humans can be driven away, though it has to be done in the right way. In this case, incorrect methods were used. The result was predictable. Now, they want to place the bear in captivity for the rest of its life – the price it will have to pay for being naïve and trusting humans. It should be noted that placing a healthy animal in a zoo means forcibly removing it from the population, which is tantamount to any other means of elimination. It will no longer give birth to offspring in the wild. It will be done for commercial purposes because zoos display animals for money and breed them for sale.


This case raises a number of questions. Why were people brought to the Arctic without receiving proper instructions? Why did the administration of the oil rig let the workers feed polar bears? By creating a situation fraught with potential conflicts between polar bears and humans, they increased the risk to people’s lives and the risk of unjustified killings of these animals that are protected by law in Russia.


Here is my short guide to avoiding dangerous encounters with polar bears.


  1. I.  Basic points 


  1.  Polar bears are driven by melting sea ice to come ashore. It’s a natural process. As global warming continues, this will recur annually in many areas of the Arctic, so it is important to be prepared.
  2.  While ashore, polar bears are unable hunt their main prey, seals, and so they start looking for alternative food. Any potential source of food captures their attention.
  3.  The appearance of a significant number of polar bears on shore signals that their traditional environment has deteriorated and that their population is in critical condition.
  4.  The polar bear is included in Russia’s Red Book of endangered species and is protected by the state. Killing a polar bear is a punishable criminal offence, unless authorised by relevant government agencies.
  5. When a polar bear is spotted near a human settlement, all necessary measures must be taken to prevent dangerous encounters with people and drive the animal away without causing it harm. Technical safety requirements must be strictly observed to ensure people’s safety.
  6.  The administration of settlements, institutions or industrial facilities is responsible for preventing dangerous encounters with polar bears and unjustified killings caused by human mistakes.
  7.  Food waste may lure polar bears and lead to dangerous encounters between bears and humans. Improperly handled food waste poses a danger to people’s health and lives and can lead to situations where rare animals protected by the state have to be killed.


  1. II.  Preventing dangerous encounters with polar bears 


1.  Constant surveillance must be organised at the outskirts of a settlement (Arctic station) located in polar bear habitats or places where they may come ashore.

2.  There must be no disposal of food waste in or near a settlement (Arctic station). Food waste must be burnt completely in special furnaces or dumped into the sea (only organic waste!).

3.  In all living and working premises, all windows within easy reach of bears must be protected by metal gratings made of 8-10 mm rods crisscrossing at intervals of no more than 10 cm. Each intersection must be properly welded, and metal spikes 5-8 cm long and 8-10 mm in diameter should be welded to each intersection.


For fire safety reasons, all gratings must be capable of being opened from the inside.


Likewise, the outer doors of all living and working premises and all food storage facilities must have similar metal gratings.   


4.  Walkways to outer doors of living and working premises must be illuminated by floodlights during dark hours.

5.  If a polar bear comes near a settlement (station), the staff must be notified at once and measures must be taken immediately to drive away the animal. It is categorically prohibited to approach the animal in order to photograph or feed it, or to let the bear remain on the territory of a settlement (station).


  1. III.  Scaring off bears


1. Polar bears are timid by nature and are easier to drive away when they first  appear than after they develop a habit of staying near people’s homes. That’s why they must be scared off firmly and consistently.


Driving away bears may prove a harder job if there are sources of food in a settlement (station), which might attract the animals. This must not be allowed. The territory must be regularly checked for such sources, and if any are found, they must be eliminated.


Polar bears may also be attracted by dogs. While it’s good to have dogs in a settlement to warn people of an approaching bear or even to drive it away entirely on their own, some bears try to hunt dogs. Therefore, dogs must be properly selected – strong aggressive males specially trained to drive away polar bears are preferable. Dogs must be fed indoors, because outdoor feeding areas will attract polar bears.


2. Here are the most effective ways to drive away polar bears:


2.1. Use vehicles (off-roader, quad, snowmobile) to chase off the bear. This method will be more effective if combined with loud, sharp and unnatural noises (horn, siren, metal hitting metal) and other means listed below.
Get close enough to scare the animal, but leave enough space for manoeuvre. Don’t turn back abruptly: the bear may think that you are frightened and give chase. Instead, ride past the animal (but not right at it). If necessary, make a second pass.


2.2. Use loud, sharp, unnatural sounds such as banging metal on metal (an empty barrel, for example), a siren or fireworks. The hissing sound of a fire extinguisher directed towards the animal will also do at close range.



For greater effect, use sharp, unnatural sounds in combination with other means of driving off the animal.


It’s important to remember that gunshots remind bears of the familiar sounds of cracking ice and normally don’t scare them. Some bears don’t react to gunshots at all.


It’s also important to keep in mind that the human voice usually attracts polar bears. This has been confirmed by numerous experiments. So remain silent while driving off a polar bear. No shouting or talking is allowed, as it may provoke an encounter.


2.3. Use exploding flares or signal rockets. Fire them towards the bear so that they land in front of the animal, scaring it away from a person or a house. If a bear is face to face with a person and a rocket explodes behind its back, the bear will run towards the person. Never aim directly at the bear: you may wound it.


Fireworks produce a similar effect.


Remember that ordinary flares are often ineffective because many bears are not scared by them and express curiosity instead. So it’s important that a bear-handling team be equipped with the specified means (exploding flares and/or signal/dound rockets).   


2.4. Rubber bullets are an effective non-lethal way to scare off polar bears, provided a person has the proper equipment and training. Rubber bullets should only be aimed at those parts of a bear’s body (rump or shoulder) where it won’t injure the animal. Don’t aim at the head or belly!

2.5. Pepper spray is a very effective means of stopping and scaring off a bear that has approached too close or is attacking. The effect will be the strongest if you spray the animal’s nose. Aim carefully and make sure you don’t miss. Given the short range of pepper spray, it must be used in a calculated way, taking into account the wind. This is an effective form of personal protection at short distance.


It is strongly recommended that you practice in advance so that when the moment comes you can act quickly: take out the pepper spray, get it ready, aim accurately and spray from the right distance. For your safety, be sure you always have pepper spray with you anywhere you might encounter a polar bear, keep it within easy reach, learn to handle it, and work on your aiming skills. You need to learn to do all this in advance (take it out, hold it correctly, remove the safety pin, aim, and deploy it at the right moment).


To make sure the pepper spray doesn’t freeze, keep it under your clothes.


Special anti-bear pepper spray in large canisters can be purchased in the United States, Canada, Japan and Germany. In Russia, it comes only in small sprayers (Shock pepper spray for street aggressors and dogs). The polar staff must be provided with a sufficient amount of this means of protection.


If you don’t have pepper spray, you can use fresh-ground pepper instead. Throw a handful of pepper directly at the bear’s nose (for example, if the animal comes too close to the porch or looks into a window).


2.6. Vigilance and caution are the most important safety factors for people who live or work in areas where polar bear encounters are possible. Before leaving home, look out through the windows and a half-open door to make sure there is no bear around.


Being intoxicated in places where a polar bear encounter is extremely risky and can be fatal.


Avoid walking near large objects (buildings, machinery, containers, etc.) behind which a bear could be lurking. Remain at a distance (at least 25-30 m) sufficient to prevent a sudden encounter with the animal. Before approaching such objects, it it’s advisable to make loud, sharp and unnatural sounds (for example, bang an empty metal barrel with a large stick or a piece of a pipe).


Never go outside without a long, hard stick (wood or metal, 1.7-2 m long). In a critical situation, you can stop a bear or even fight off an attacking bear by thrusting the stick into the animal’s face.


If you observe all of these rules, a critical situation is unlikely, but if you encounter a polar bear at a dangerously close range, aggressive actions can help you avoid a tragic outcome. But be silent when you confront the bear! Remember that the sound of the human voice may provoke an attack!


Another thing to remember is that in the mind of a polar bear a slow-moving object may be associated with prey and a fast-moving object is normally associated with danger. Therefore, while working outdoors in areas where a polar bear may come your way, look around as often as you can and avoid being in a sedentary posture (especially sitting or lying) for too long.


If you see a polar bear nearby, never run away from it unless you are sure you have enough time to reach shelter. Retreat usually causes the bear to pursue and an attack may follow. If you find yourself in this situation, a long, hard stick and pepper spray will help scare off the bear.


Any attempt to drive away a polar bear from a settlement (station) must be carefully planned and prepared and entrusted to properly trained and equipped staff.


Considering the prospect of an increasing number of polar bears coming ashore as Arctic ice continues to melt, it’s advisable to use automated meteorological stations instead of human personnel wherever possible.


People working in polar bear habitats or areas where they might encounter polar bears must receive proper instructions in personal safety and emergency response and be provided with the necessary means to scare off bears as well as means of personal protection.