Last October, a polar bear ran amok through a remote sled dog camp eleven miles outside Churchill. Six dogs were killed, two eaten, and twelve more wounded. If this grisly item appeared on the yellowed page of a 1897 frontier newspaper instead of the slick page of a 1997 magazine, readers would assume it was just another random incident in the taming of the North. A man who chains down fifty sled dogs in polar bear territory should expect a bit of trouble now and then.
In this case, the actions of game wardens precipitated the attack on the prize Canadian Eskimo dogs that Brian Ladoon breeds for a living. Ladoon takes full responsibility for managing his dogs in the wilds for the last twenty-three years. Wardens knowingly thwarted his novel strategy that, until now, had saved countless lives of bears and dogs.
During the fall, up to 20 wild polar bears a week pass through Ladoon's camp before heading out in winter to hunt seals on the pack ice. Instead of shooting bears, Ladoon allows natural play behavior between healthy bears and his dogs to unfold. Only occasionally has he ushered rare bad actors out of camp to the tune of shotgun cracks. Dominant bears accustomed to his dogs usually perform that task on their own.
In a lengthy August 1995 OP feature on Churchill bears (separate from this monthly column), I described the joy of photographing a bear rubbing noses with a sled dog, tugging on it gently, and rolling it over on the snow, followed by the shock of seeing a game warden shoot it and two other bears with a tranquilizer rifle right before my eyes . Even though the bears' aggression toward dogs and humans was clearly inhibited, one bear was euthenized and the other two were put in "polar bear jail," a facility for keeping problem bears until the ice forms on Hudson Bay.
Also photographing that event were my wife Barbara, biologist Dr. James Halfpenny, and German photographer Norbert Rosing, who later sold a delightful image of a bear playing with a dog to National Geographic. I shot eight rolls of images that captured the essence of that positive reaching out of one species for another, but turned down national magazine offers for single images of the joyful play to try to get the complete story published as a warning of what was happening to wild polar bears in Canada. Brian Ladoon was fearful about an attack by a rogue bear, perhaps an aging bear or an adolescent male, in the absence of more dominant bears friendly to his dogs.
Though I pointed out the pitfalls of wardens violating their mandate to only manage bears for public safety in my OP feature, I never envisioned an event as drastic as what happened last fall. The overture of the tragedy began with Sylvia Tyson's musical group arriving in Churchill to perform, driving to Ladoon's camp to see bears, and getting their two-wheel-drive minivan stuck in deep snow. The driver got out to shovel and a curious polar bear approached. When the driver rushed back inside, the benign bear went to sleep thirty feet away. An unamused game warden eventually "rescued" the celebrities with his 4WD truck and informed Ladoon that he had put famous visitors at risk.
Soon, twelve men and a helicopter appeared. They darted five large bears and airlifted them away. Ladoon again anticipated his camp was "open to every meandering bear that comes through" and kept a daytime vigil in near-zero temperatures and steady 30 mph winds. The carnage began in total darkness while Ladoon was in town. A bear ignored meat set out as a deterrent on the perimeter of the camp, raged into camp, began attacking dogs, and ate one.
When Ladoon came upon five dead and eleven wounded dogs the next morning, he couldn't waste time hunting down the bear. "I had my hands full trying to save injured dogs. I was managing a little battlefield with dead and wounded all around." A warden came, but failed to tranquilize the offending bear because of a problem with his dart rifle. Darkness fell again. Two more dogs were attacked and another one eaten. The next day, Ladoon shot an adult male polar bear he describes as being "about half functional, possibly rabid." Manitoba Natural Resources officers declined to test the remains.
When I asked Ladoon why he didn't want his dog facility within the public-safety bear control zone closer to Churchill, he answered that humans pose far more problems for his dogs than bears do. He chose the wild area far out of Churchill to have a natural site with clean fresh water and to avoid unwanted intrusions and injuries to people who might taunt the big dogs. He said game officers should "respect that I've been dealing with bears without problems for over twenty years, long before they made their public safety rules." Reports about bears being habituated to his dogs are false, he says, because as soon as the pack ice forms each November, the bears around his camp head out on Hudson Bay with all the others.
Ladoon doesn't try to compete in the hot polar bear tourism marketplace. The three or four thousand dollars he takes in each year in donations from the few photographers who arrive at his camp by word of mouth barely pay to fill his dogs' mouths. His land permit allows him to conduct tourism activities if he chooses, but he mainly wants to breed and run some of the last of about 300 remaining purebred Canadian Eskimo dogs. His dogs have modeled for a Canadian stamp, a forthcoming coin, and appeared in magazines around the world.
Before the recent incident, only four of his dogs had died from bear interactions in 23 seasons. None had ever been attacked and eaten. Ladoon believes all four prior incidents were accidental–a broken neck from too-hard play and a running bear catching a chain between a breeding pair, for example. Though he was not on site when the recent attack began, he says he closely monitors his dogs and always tries to be there to assist: "If there's something seriously wrong, they don't just die out there. They die in my arms."
What's conspicuously missing from this scenario is consistent government policy for the long-term survival of both bears and humans. The fatal attraction of wild polar bears as cash cows has created short-term greed among a few tourism operators and government officials. Ladoon's dog camp is the only place near Churchill where a tourist or photographer can still predictably see bears without paying a high tariff. Thus operators with coveted tundra vehicle permits stand to gain when bears approachable by car near Ladoon's camp are jailed or relocated. Tourists are charged hundreds of dollars for rides into the controlled area beyond the dog camp.
Manitoba National Resources officers claim that Brian Ladoon has no supporters, but I've sent three strong letters of support over the past four years and received copies of others written by concerned photographers to Honourable Albert Driedger, Minister of Natural Resources, Room 333, Legislative Bldg., Winnipeg, Manitoba R3C 0V8, Canada. Though he has never replied to me, I urge concerned readers who share my outrage, or wish to relate personal experiences of their own, to please write. What's at stake is the essence of what photographers from around the world come to see in the environs of Churchill. As Canadian zoologist Ian Stirling says, "The wild polar bear is the Arctic incarnate . . . not just a symbol but the very embodiment of life in the Arctic."
Rumor has it that his honorable ear might listen to statements of how Ladoon's dogs benefit Churchill's economy. I did mention the economics of ecotourism, but couldn't resist adding that by its very definition, ecotourism must be managed as a sustainable resource. As assuredly as bear/human interactions around Churchill should be curtailed in the interest of public safety, wild bears in more remote places need to be left alone.