As a boy, I loved polar bears. I had a stuffed one called Nanook. He was white and fluffy and very, very cuddly. So imagine my surprise when I started working on the polar bear episode of Built for the Kill: I quickly discovered my beloved polar bear is far from cuddly. The polar bear is terrifying. And grumpy. And very, very dangerous.
Polar bears are the world’s largest terrestrial predator. Standing 12 feet tall, the bears are built to kill, with powerhouse paws the size of dinner plates, tipped with two-inch long claws. Then there are the three-inch-long canine teeth, set like daggers in formidable jaws.
The bears are unbelievably strong. My favorite story is of a polar bear that killed a seal as it stuck its nose up to its breathing hole in the ice. The bear then lifted the 120-pound seal out of the water. The seal was two feet in diameter. The hole in the ice was ten inches across. Pulled through this impossibly small gap, the seal was stretched into “one long spluttering shred of broken bones, blood, and entrails.”
Eeew. And to think I used to cuddle a polar bear in my bed. What were my parents thinking?
In their defense, I must admit baby polar bears are cute. They’re born blind, deaf, and toothless. They’re totally dependent on their mother to keep them warm, as the Arctic winter rages outside their den. The only thing killer about the polar bear cubs is their appetite. For twelve weeks, they guzzle their mother’s milk, piling on the pounds as they prepare to leave the den.
A polar bear cub is the ultimate mama’s boy. He spends three years following in her footsteps, watching her kill, learning how to hunt. Along the way he’s transformed. The bumbling bundle of fluff becomes an accomplished killer—capable of hunting seals, whales, and walruses.
Just as I was finishing researching the show, polar bears hit the headlines. In August 2011, students camping on a remote Arctic glacier awoke into a nightmare. A polar bear entered their tent, killing a 17-year-old boy and seriously injuring four others. It was a very poignant reminder of the polar bear’s strength, power, and peril.
I don’t think I’ll be going to bed with my old stuffed Nanook any time soon…