Roald Amundsen tried and failed to tame a polar bear cub in 1920

From Polar Bear Science

Susan Crockford

A short account of polar explorer Roald Amundsen’s failed attempt to tame a polar bear cub he had bought in May 1920 from a trader in the Russian Far East appears today in the Barents Observer. The cub was likely captured after its mother was killed, which was a common practice at a time when polar bears were being slaughtered wholesale throughout the Arctic (Crockford 2019; Honderich 1991; Stirling 2011).

It only took a month for Amundsen to give up his experiment. Below are some excerpts; read the full account here. More photos are here.

One day, during Roald Amundsen’s voyage through the Northeast Passage, Georg Kibisow from the Russian Trading Company came aboard Amundsen’s ship, the Maud. He brought along a polar bear cub that he had caught near Kolyma. He offered the cub to Amundsen, who bought it.

Roald Amundsen named the polar bear cub Marie. He gave her a lot of attention in the hope of taming her so she could pull a sledge. Marie features a lot in Amundsen’s expedition diary and he followed her development closely. Here is a sample of what Amundsen wrote:

It’s not easy to make friends with Marie, but it might work. I carry her now, whenever I want, but I have to make sure I hold onto her head so she can’t bite me. She is constantly fighting with the dogs. This little critter has no fear.[and later]

I chloroformed Marie to death this morning. I had to abandon any hopes of training her. After grooming and feeding her for a month, this morning, when I brought her milk, she came at me in a ferocious rage. In the hands of an experienced trainer she might have become a bit friendlier, but I had to give up.


Below is a map of the Kolyma district in the Russian Far East, which is essentially the drainage of the Kolyma River. The Kolyma River ends in a broad delta that empties into the East Siberian Sea, near the boundary with the Chukchi Sea. Winters in this region are extremely cold and is where most Arctic sea ice forms (Crockford 2022).

A fuller account of his Northeast Passage voyage is here, with more photos, including this one of Marie the polar bear cub in May 1920, and with one of the dog teams in October 1919:


Crockford, S.J. 2019. The Polar Bear Catastrophe That Never Happened. Global Warming Policy Foundation, London.

Crockford, S.J. 2022. Polar bear fossil and archaeological records from the Pleistocene and Holocene in relation to sea ice extent and open water polynyas. Open Quaternary 8(7):1–26.

Honderich, J.E. 1991. Wildlife as a hazardous resource: an analysis of the historical interaction of humans and polar bears in the Canadian arctic. MA thesis, University of Waterloo, Ontario.

Stirling, I. 2011. Polar Bears: The Natural History of a Threatened Species. Fitzhenry & Whiteside, Markham, Ontario.

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Tom Halla
May 13, 2023 10:10 am

All I know about Kolyma was a Gulag/gold mine which was notorious for brutality and a high death rate.

Reply to  Tom Halla
May 13, 2023 7:01 pm

Maybe between the two of them, Al Gore and Michael Mann can tame a full grown male.

May 13, 2023 10:57 am

I bought a beautiful Bengal leopard cat and it was a disaster. The breed was developed from a partially fertile cross between the wild Bengal cat and domestic moggies. Apparently the Bengals are one of the very few cats that form pair bonds. She bonded with me and hated every one else in the family. If I was absent, she sprayed and howled continuously. After 3 years of this I took her to the vet to be put to sleep – could not give such an animal away.

Moral: many animals are not domesticatable: their genes rule.

May 13, 2023 10:57 am

Humans, too, have natures from which they cannot be fully trained.

Wise humans, eg Adam Smith and our American Founders, understood this well. They advocated adapting systems to human nature. They created or described systems that work well.

Then there are the too numerous utopians that think they can ignore human nature. They fail.

Marxism explicitly rejects “human nature”, claiming in a true marxist system a new man is created. So far, every attempt at marxism has failed.

The Green Movement relies on a marxist understanding. It will fail, too, but is destroying much en route to its end.

Reply to  kwinterkorn
May 15, 2023 1:51 pm

The irony is that those that think people will all work together in the ‘new man’ format are on the spectrum that is farthest from the sheep that they envision. They are the lazy controllers that don’t do any real work on their own.

I could be wrong … but I don’t think Marx or Chavez or Maduro, or Allende, or Che Guevara (Ernesto Guevara de la Serna), or Stalin (Ioseb Dzhugashvili), or Lenin (Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov), or Obama (barry), or Ho Chi Mihn (Nguyen Sinh Cung) had a real working job that lasted longer than 6 months year.

… add to the constitution: No one shall hold federal public office without first showing a reasonable work ethic. A minimum of 24 months in the same occupation (manual or physical labor) or 42 months in some other type of non-governmental or for-profit organization. 🙂

(and what is the deal with the big time marxist murders needing to or wanting to change their given names?)

Janice Moore
May 13, 2023 10:59 am

Marie was probably:

1) too old when Amundsen adopted her; and or

2) likely had been permanently traumatized at some point (to compare with puppies: if they have a deeply traumatizing experience before about 5 weeks old, they will almost never get over it).

The polar bear below may be an anomaly (in the common usage of that word), but, adopted by the man at 8 weeks, she is reliably affectionate with him and tolerates his wife — and NO one else.

(Edit (after reading Fran’s experience above): I must add that it appears that polar bears are NOT domesticatable; bonding with 1 person is not domestication. Marie, even under the best circumstances, could not have pulled a sled — unless Amundsen was the only person within 5 miles (or whatever distance is accurate)).

J Boles
May 13, 2023 11:49 am

I wonder if in such a situation it helps to have a female or if a male then neutered.

Reply to  J Boles
May 13, 2023 12:46 pm

Even with my indoor cats being both spayed and neutered, sometimes they really “ break bad” on me if they get to worked up when I play with them – oouch!. And they are only 15 lb animals.

May 13, 2023 12:58 pm

My uneducated guess is that one can tame / domesticate an animals that live in packs but not solitary animals. Pack animals have the genetic makeup that allows the recognition and respect a dominant leader and seek the approval and intentions of a leader. Ideally, you are that leader. Conversely, even the family dog can be a danger if it does not recognize you as a leader and the other family members as part of their pack.

Susan Crockford
Reply to  robaustin
May 14, 2023 6:27 am

Hi all,
As many here have noted, taming is not domestication. Taming isn’t often successful, as this example shows, but when it is, taming changes an individual, while domestication changes a population.

Most scientists now consider domestication to be a speciation event no different than the transformation of brown bear to polar bear.

My forthcoming book, “Polar Bear Evolution: A Model for How New Species Arise,” should be out in couple of weeks. Uniquely, this book not only addresses when and where polar bears first came to be, but also how and why it happened. Domestication is also covered.

With polar bears, you get so much more.


Steve Keohane
Reply to  robaustin
May 14, 2023 9:18 am

I would suspect you are right WRT pack vs. solitary animals. We had an Artic wolf at 18 months. Supposedly she had been adopted several times but returned to the shelter each time. The wolf bonded with my wife right away but took two years before she would come up to me on her own. After that incident, she seemed to see the three of us as her pack. She learned to obey commands but often might obey in her own way, e.g., rather than enter the open door to the car to go out for a walk, she might go all the way around the vehicle before getting in.

It doesnot add up
Reply to  robaustin
May 14, 2023 9:43 am

Consider the team of Samoyeds in the picture from 1919. Possibly the first breed to be domesticated tens of thousands of years ago. Used for herding reindeer, pulling sleds, providing wool, and warmth for Sami children. An existence heavily intertwined with their humans, traits that remain in the breed today, albeit that modern breeding has pushed for spectacular coats rather than the weatherproof version still in evidence in 1919.

Mr Ed
May 13, 2023 2:26 pm

Where I live there was a nearby man about 10 yrs ago who started
feeding bears in his yard and it did not end well. The F&G had to destroy all the bears after they lost all fear of humans, 5-6 head.. I also remember seeing the bears at the dump in Yellowstone Park as a kid in the evenings when the park employees would feed them..they quit doing that back in the ’60’s. It was a big attraction, as were the bears along the road way.
They say a fed bear is a dead bear in these parts.

Reply to  Mr Ed
May 15, 2023 1:28 am

In 1971 a young Graemethecat was visiting Yellowstone National Park with his parents and two sisters. At the entrance to the park there was a bear sitting by the road. People would throw food to the bear from their cars. My sister got out of our car to take photos of the big, cuddly teddybear with her new camera. The teddybear noticed, and suddenly sprang to his paws and charged towards her. My father moved faster than I could believe, picking her up by her belt and throwing her in the car. Fortunately, we were able to lock the car doors and shut the windows in time. Never, ever trust a bear.

Ben Vorlich
May 13, 2023 4:21 pm

Wild animals and weather are unpredictable

Snow fell in parts of northern Spain on Friday after months without any rain and high temperatures which made it feel more like summer than spring.

Michael S. Kelly
May 13, 2023 5:42 pm

Siberian researchers have succeeded, over a period of 60 years, in domesticating foxes. Here in the wilds of Northern Virginia, my wife and I maintain feeding stations for all manner of birds, and for the Eastern Gray Squirrel.

Not long after we set up the squirrel feeders, the local fox population learned that the little gray ones congregated on our back deck morning, noon and evening. They began to show up during daylight hours to “hunt” them. I use the quotes because the foxes are really bad at it – so much so that my wife dubbed the fox “the Elmer Fudd of the animal kingdom.” But after each failed attempt, I would immediately put out a consolation prize of a few dog biscuits.

Soon the foxes started to appear on our back deck a couple of times a day. At first, they would put on a show of chasing squirrels, and after failing to get any, trot off over the hill. If my wife or I had seen the show, we’d immediately put out some dog biscuits. The biscuits would be gone in no time.

Several generations of fox later, they often dispense with the pretense of a hunt. Instead, they’ll trot across our back deck a few times, and look directly at us through the sun room windows. Once they see one of us looking out at them (and they look intently to make sure), they trot over the hill and wait for their biscuits. We never disappoint.

So, in very short order, the Northern Virginia red fox has domesticated ua.

May 13, 2023 6:45 pm

A wild animal can be tamed, or raised to be tame, and possibly trained, but it takes generations to actually domesticate a chosen species of animal; a process that generally involves selective breeding for the desired characteristics. Amundsen who was rather stuffy and rigid (e.g.his attitude that “Adventure is just bad planning”), as is frequently the case with Scandinavians (e.g. Gretta and her supporters), was trying to make the bear go from wild (apex predator carnivore) animal to domesticated obedient beast of burden in one generation. So, its not surprising that he antagonized the polar bear and failed. The more easy going and adventurous Slavs, on the other hand, have an affinity for bears, and a long tradition of taming/training them. Thus, a year before Amundsen’s failed “experiment”, the Polish Murmansk Battalion adopted a polar bear cub as their mascot; treating it as a comrade in their fight against the Bolsheviks rather than trying to make it a sledge-pulling slave. They were apparently quite successful in raising it to be tame and friendly – perhaps too much so, as the bear’s curiosity and playfulness being misinterpreted by some local peasants led to its tragic early demise.

May 13, 2023 7:44 pm

A true apex predator can never be taught it is a sheep. especially if it cannot use a cell phone.

Lee Riffee
May 13, 2023 8:40 pm

Polar bears might not be able to be tamed, but apparently they can be trained – back in the 80’s the Ringling Bros circus had about a dozen polar bears that had been trained to perform. I remember my parents taking me to see it when I was a kid. I also remember my mom not wanting to take me because she hates clowns….
Even though they didn’t jump thru flaming hoops like the lions and tigers, they must have been trainable enough to be circus animals.

May 13, 2023 9:15 pm

It seems similar to the experience one gets when making some concessions to a Green.

Steve Z
May 14, 2023 4:09 am

Decades ago, I watched a TV nature special about a scientist trying to raise and tame a motherless polar bear cub. About two months in, the cub got upset about something and made three threatening front paw swipes just inches from the scientist’s face. The speed, power, and athleticism of those three claws-out swipes are beyond description. Muhammad Ali on his best day could not throw punches that fast! Anyway, the taming of the bear cub ended immediately.

May 14, 2023 4:25 am

Divide the population into aggressive, timid, curious. Breed the curious and destroy the rest. In 7 generations you
will have a domesticated sub-apecies.

May 14, 2023 5:35 am

My cat is a sweet-natured animal. Very intelligent and affectionate. He knows the commands ‘sit’, ‘paw’, and ‘lay down’.

But when he found a mouse, he became a tiger. My commands and admonishments went unheard – the very fibre of his being was concentrated on killing the mouse.

He is still partly wild. And immensely strong, considering his diminutive frame.


May 15, 2023 5:36 pm

Heartwarming and heartbreaking story… Thank you Dr. Crockford.

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