Excerpt from "Animals at Play"

by Stuart L. Brown

Polar bear playing with tire by Norbert Rosing
(Photo: Norbert Rosing)

The end seemed very near for Hudson, a Canadian Eskimo dog tethered near the shore of the Hudson Bay east of Churchill, Manitoba. A thousand-pound polar bear was lumbering toward the dog and about 40 others, the prized possessions of Brian Ladoon, a hunter and trapper. It was mid-November 1992; ice had not yet formed on the bay, and the open water prevented bears from hunting their favorite prey, seals. So this bear had been virtually fasting for four months. Surely a dog was destined to become a meal.

The bear closed in. Did Hudson howl in terror and try to flee? On the contrary. He wagged his tail, grinned, and actually bowed to the bear, as if in invitation. The bear responded with enthusiastic body language and nonaggressive facial signals. These two normally antagonistic species were speaking the same language: "Let's play!" The romp was on. For several minutes dog and bear wrestled and cavorted. Once the bear completely wrapped himself around the dog like a friendly white cloud. Bear and dog then embraced, as if in sheer abandon. Overheated by his smaller playmate's shenanigans, the bear lay down and called for a time-out. Every evening for more than a week the bear returned to play with one of the dogs. Finally the ice formed, and he set off for his winter habitat.

This behavior has been witnessed repeatedly in Churchill but has not been reported elsewhere in the Arctic. Throughout the region, polar bears occasionally kill and eat sled dogs. Why should the Churchill bears behave so differently? Although he has not seen the phenomenon, biologist Ian Stirling of the Canadian Wildlife Service says that the fall fasting of these Hudson Bay bears slows their metabolism so much that "they can almost be hibernating on their feet." Perhaps that saved the dog's life. But why would the bear play rather than attack? This is an open question, and it fascinates me.

This article was first published in the December 1994 issue of National Geographic, and was reprinted with permission of the author.

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is founder and president of the National Institute for Play near Monterey, California. He is co-author of Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul.