The Polar Bear

Lina Sandell

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One of the animals at the zoological gardens that most interested the children was the enormous Polar Bear (Ursus maritimus).  He, the King of the Arctic, was now a prisoner in a small, walled-rum of four corners surrounded by iron bars.  

The floor was constructed of sheet metal to simulate the slipperiness of ice, and in addition there was a bath with clean water where the bear hung out, especially during the summer.  For when a Polar Bear is transported so far to the South as Denmark or northern Germany, it is difficult for him to endure the hot temperatures; often he becomes sick and dies if he has not from a young age become accustomed to what for him is such an unnatural climate.

In Europe, the Polar Bear is native to high Arctic environments.  Only rarely has it been recorded as floating on drift ice as far south as the coast of present-day Troms og Finnmark, as well as Russia.  It is the largest of all bears and grows 9 to 10 feet long.  In coloration, it is white or yellowish-white, its head smaller and neck longer than those of land bears.  Its food consists of fish and seals.  

It swims and dives with superior proficiency, but catches seals most often when they lay curled up on the edges of the pack ice.  Then, with a pair of fast, unexpected springs, he throws himself over his prey and, with a single blow of his formidable paws, crushes it. Although unbelievably strong, like other bears he seldom attacks humans unless provoked, starving or has previously developed a taste for human flesh.  He is hunted for his pelt, meat and bacon fat.

Our bear at the Zoological Garden had been captured while still a cub by whalers, who also, when it suited them, hunted Polar Bears and seals.  Because pack ice blocked the whalers’ route at that time, they had been forced to refrain from hunting whales, and, because Polar Bears could be plainly seen nearby on the ice, the ship’s captain Mats Jensen decided to follow them and shoot them.  Together with three other swift men: Nielsen, Johansen – both Norwegians – and Swede Johan Storm, he dragged himself out over the seemingly endless ice fields with sleds, weapons, dogs and other essential equipment.  The whole first day, they strived in vain over the pack ice without catching their prey and, exhausted, they pitched their tent in order to rest until the following day’s hardships.

The men were soon fast asleep, wrapped up in thick furs to protect them from the biting cold weather.  In the middle of the tent burned an oil lamp, and the dogs lay hunched together at the mens’ feet.

Suddenly, one of the dogs lifted its head, listened and began to growl in a alarming, disquieting way.  Immediately, the other dogs also began to listen and growl, and then to bark furiously.  The men awoke and grabbed their weapons to defend themselves.

At the same time, the canvas door at the entrance to the tent was torn away and a huge Polar Bear appeared. With a wild roar, he rushed into the tent, but was greeted by a volley of shots, which inflicted several wounds on him. Unfortunately, however, this happened so fast that no none of the men aimed so well that the bear received a fatal wound.

Brought to the utmost fury, he raised another terrible howl, but before he had time to throw himself upon either of the men, the dog Max bravely rushed forward and bit him on the throat, by which he was again stopped. 

It was only for a few seconds, however, for with a single shake the bear freed himself from the dog’s grasp, after which, with a blow of his frame over the bow, he crushed the chest of the faithful and brave dog. The next moment he grabbed Nielsen with his teeth, but fortunately had gotten hold of nothing more than the thick fur that was torn to rags. The bear paid little heed to Jensen’s and Johansen’s pistol blows, and he raised his frame again to give Nielsen the killing blow, when Storm swung an ax with all his might and plunged it right up to its shaft into the bear’s neck, just at the end of the skull. The bear staggered for a moment, then fell heavily to the ground. He was dead.

The heated battle hardly lasted as long as it takes to read its progress. The men now had to hurry to get the bear onto a sledge, take down the tent, load their guns and set off towards the ship, because in the event that several polar bears were nearby, they would probably need the ship’s railings to defend themselves from behind.

They were not wrong in their concern. After a few hours, the female bear with her two cubs had arrived at the place where the tent had been and the male had been killed. She easily followed the blood trail to the ship, which she arriving shortly after the men and their prey. Roaring with rage and pain, she drifted back and forth in front of the ship for several hours, without, however, getting within range. Because he suspected that she intended to wait for darkness to surprise the ship, Jensen decided to move out with his entire crew to take up the fight on the ice.

Probably out of concern for the cubs’ lives, the female bear now seemed determined to retreat, but a shot rang out and one cub, wounded, rolled around in its blood. Furious with rage, the female now dashed at her enemies, but was met with a shower of bullets, which, after a couple of leaps, laid her dead on the ice as well.

Wheezing anxiously, the cub licked the dead mother’s body and sought refuge with her. Involuntarily, he then allowed himself to be caught by the crew, who, without doing him any harm, brought him on board the ship. There he soon won everyone’s attention and was cherished in every way. When the ship returned shortly thereafter from its expedition, he was taken with it to Norway and, eventually, to the zoological garden in Denmark.

There he grew up to be a gigantic Polar Bear, winning the special attention and friendship of children visiting the zoo.  The latter always brought tasty food to throw to him to comfort him in his loneliness, his homesickness for the vast expanses of Arctic wilderness and northern lights, and most of all, to console him for the loss of his God-given freedom which has the same irreplaceable value for animals as for humans.

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About this Short Story

Author: Lina Sandell (1832-1903)

Copyright © 2022 this text and page configuration: Ecology Online Sweden.

Translation (Swedish to English) by Paul D. Haemig: Copyright © 2022 Ecology Online Sweden.