The sound of the helicopter, rather like a giant mosquito, starts as a tiny vibration in your ear. Your left ear, as it happens. Not long after you’ve realised that it is the helicopter, and not an incredibly loud insect, it has filled the sky and then tilted impressively towards the earth, almost – but never quite – alighting on the frozen ground nearby. As it arrived, action began, and soon two large white shapes, like half melted scoops of vanilla ice cream in enormous string shopping bags, are being clipped on to the underside of the machine-mosquito while it is still in mid air. You wonder at the bravery of everyone involved. Then, as quickly as it arrived, it ascends, flying above you for just long enough to see the ears of the bears being flown out to the tundra, and then they are gone and though it’s strange, you hope you never see them again.
The Polar Bear Holding Facility in Churchill, Manitoba protects the town’s less than 1000 inhabitants from the bears which blow in like snow drifts from the early autumn. The facility, nicknamed with great affection the Polar Bear Jail, houses ‘problem bears’ that have found themselves in town or otherwise too close for comfort. These bears which have not eaten since the sea ice melted in the spring – stranding them on shore – come to town, stomachs rumbling, to wait for the ice to re-form. For a bear who hasn’t eaten in months, Churchill can present something of an opportunity. Polar bears are notoriously curious and opportunistic. When you live in a white, flat environment, any visual anomaly or tantalising smell, no matter how strange or distant, could represent an opportunity to eat. It is this curious nature and the search for food that sometimes leads them into the town and potential conflict with people.
Polar bear attacks in Churchill are rare, but they do and have happened. Because of this, it is important for the safety of bears and humans alike that measures are taken to stop us from coming into contact with each other. These take a number of forms, including a polar bear patrol team, who drive around the perimeter, respond to calls, and chase bears away from the town. But one of the last lines of defence for Churchill is the holding facility. If a bear does find its way into town, or a trap is laid for a bear who keeps returning to the same unsafe area and it is caught, then it is moved into the facility. The jail does not provide the bears with food, so that they do not come to associate it with being fed and try to return in years to come, but they are given water, shelter, and a little straw to keep things comfortable. This system is incredibly effective in reducing the number of run-ins between the human and bear populations of Churchill and it also means that problem bears are not shot, which they might have been before it was instated. Everyone, human and non-human is safer for it.
The bears are not kept inside forever. If a polar bear has been inside for 30 days, or the number of bears threatens to outnumber that of the cells available, then it is air-lifted out many kilometres from town and released to await the sea ice from a safe distance on the tundra. All the bears are released in this way at the end of ‘bear season’ when the ice has fully formed and they can head out onto it to hunt for another year. All this means that the helicopter pilots of Churchill occasionally find themselves responsible for quite unusual cargo. As each bear is flown out onto the tundra or the sea ice, it is in the hope that next year it will have eaten well enough over the winter to see it through to the following autumn comfortably, that it will have learned not to come back to town, and that the mosquitoes will be only insects.