General Non-Fiction posted March 14, 2023

This work has reached the exceptional level
a polar bear story

Cuddly Apex Predator

by w.j.debi

I like polar bears--at the zoo behind protective barriers. They are so entertaining as they leap into the water, swim, wrestle with each other, and knock things around their habitat. Behind glass, they seem like fun, playful creatures.

Perhaps, that is why I was captivated by an NPR radio interview last week. I was starting my mother's car to let the battery charge. (My mother doesn't drive anymore, but can't seem to give up the car.) I turned on the radio seeking a diversion. A man named Dennis Compayre was talking about his more than twenty-year relationship with a polar bear.

It began when Dennis' friend asked him to become a driver for a business he was opening to take tourists around to see polar bears in their natural habitat. They modified a bus, hoping it was tough enough to handle the elements and the bears. It was a new concept at the time and this bus was the first. They dubbed it, "Buggy One."

Soon after, Dennis was out in the wilderness testing the vehicle and he saw a mother polar bear with two cubs. The mother bear and one cub were busy doing what polar bears do, but the other cub noticed the buggy and came to investigate.

The curious cub came right up and looked in the window at Dennis. Dennis ducked down so the cub couldn't see him then popped up to see the cub's reaction. The cub seemed to like it. Dennis ducked again; the cub stood on his hind legs and backed up a few paces trying to see in. Dennis peeked out. As the cub weaved and moved its feet to balance itself, it looked like the cub was dancing. At that moment, Dennis dubbed the cub "Dancer." Dennis and Dancer kept this game going until the mother bear called the cub to move on.

Considering this a one-time event, Dennis was surprised to see the mother and cubs a few days later. Dancer came over to check out the buggy again. They played the same peek-a-boo game. A special connection was forming with this cub. For the next three weeks, Dancer seemed to find Dennis whenever he ventured out to explore and test the vehicle.

When Dennis returned to the area the next year, the mother and her cubs were there. Dancer interacted with Dennis for a couple of weeks before the bears moved on.

The following year when Dennis ventured out, a bear approached the buggy at a good clip. Could it be Dancer? It was. Dennis recognized the expression on the bear's face. Other bears often looked concerned, but Dancer had a comical, contented expression that made him look forever amused. Dancer visited and interacted with Dennis that season and in the following two seasons.

Life went on and the business was sold. The new owners considered Dennis too scruffy to guide the tours and gave him work to do closer to town. But Dennis yearned to return to exploration and the bears.

While surfing the Internet one day, he came across a webcam called AfriCam which showed African animals in their natural habitat. On a whim, Dennis sent the company an email asking if they would consider doing the same thing with polar bears. To his surprise, he had a response the next morning saying, "Let's do it." Three weeks later, three guys from South Africa showed up with the equipment Dennis needed to set up the webcam.

Dennis was elated. Here was a way for him to get back to the bears, and this time on his own without tourists. Problem was, six or seven years had passed and the ice was no longer thick enough to support vehicles in the area he had previously frequented. Also, the original Buggy One had been decommissioned and left in a garbage heap. Dennis went to work on refurbishing Buggy One with a bed and room for the camera equipment, and convinced his bosses the webcam would increase business. Then he headed out.

Back to the ice in a new area with his trusty polar bear vehicle, Dennis was happy to see polar bears again.
One morning while he was drinking his coffee, Dennis felt a "whump" hard enough to rock the buggy and spill his coffee. He scraped ice off the window to see outside. A huge bear looked back at him. Then the bear stood up and backed away in a rhythmic manner. It was his old friend Dancer. How did the bear ever find him so many miles from their original area? It didn't matter; Dennis was excited to see him.

The two continued to share their special friendship for many years, interacting every November for two or three weeks when Dennis was out in Buggy One. Here are three visits with the bear that stood out to me.

Word got around to tour groups about Dennis and his special bear. To help with business, Dennis would entice Dancer to "perform" for the tourists. One time, Dancer was lying next to the buggy when a tourist bus came by. Dennis tried coaxing Dancer to get up and come over to greet him. Dancer lifted his head, looked at Dennis for a moment, then put his head down. After the tourist bus left, Dancer got up and came to visit him. Dennis realized that asking his friend to be a "circus performer" was disrespectful and he ceased asking Dancer to do it.

Once, Dennis was feeling down and sat staring off into space, contemplating his troubles. He turned to see Dancer's head sticking through the window. Buggy One had sliding windows and Dancer had long ago learned how to push one to the side with his paw and stick his head in. Dennis often scratched Dancer on the nose and behind the ears when he did. This time, Dancer was merely watching him and hadn't made a sound. How long had the bear been there? Dennis wasn't sure. He decided Dancer had picked up on his emotions and was lending his quiet support to comfort his friend.

Sometimes, when he was alone, Dennis decided it was okay to exit the vehicle and interact with Dancer, as he called it, "on the ground." My immediate reaction was, "Yikes! Do you have a death wish?" Later, Dennis admitted it probably was not the wisest thing he'd ever done, but Dancer never hurt him or made him feel threatened in any way.

This man's experience increased my appreciation of polar bears and that exceptional bond that rarely occurs between a human and a wild animal.
Even though this relationship worked out for Dennis and Dancer, I never wish to meet one of these big furry creatures on their own turf no matter how cuddly they look. Tempting fate by playing with an apex predator is heart-pounding excitement, raising more adrenaline than I crave.

Instead, I'll continue to enjoy polar bears a bit more sedately, smiling at their antics behind glass at the zoo where I can safely reflect on the unique friendship of Dennis and a bear called Dancer.

Wildlife Short Story contest entry



3rd place

word count required 1000-3000
work count: 1188

This was written a few days after hearing the broadcast. I may have confused a few details. You know how memories are. To hear the real story in Dennis' own words, please refer to the broadcast. I don't feel this synopsis does justice to the passion he displays as he shares his story.
To hear the entire broadcast you can go to
To learn more about Dennis Compayre's work to help polar bears, you can contact him by email at:
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

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