Unpacking the claim that photos from 1950 are Soviet soldiers feeding ‘starving’ polar bears

You may have seen this one before: a photo from 1950 of Soviet soldiers feeding polar bears sweetened condensed milk from a tank. There are others, taken about the same time.

Let’s look at the claims being promoted regarding these photos a little more critically.

One website that got these photos from ‘Russian Archives’ claims they are of starving polar bears that Russian soldiers took pity upon, taken in 1950 [my bold].

Photo taken during a routine military expedition in Chukchi Peninsula, Soviet Union. It isn’t sure if the Chukchi Peninsula has more people or white bears. The climate is very severe and sometimes weather can be so fierce in winter that the temperature falls 40 C degrees below zero (-40 Fahrenheit) so that poor white bears and their cubs start starving and freezing.

The soldiers, who served on the Army District of Chukchi Peninsula, didn’t turn their backs on the poor and starving animals and started to feed them every now and then.

Of course, you do not have such big amounts of meat at home to feed several white bears. And soldiers decided to feed the bears up with what they had in abundance – tins, or to be more exact, condensed milk.

Soldiers would open such a tin with a tin-opener and then give the can to the bear who licked all the milk from tin and then feed her little bears with it. Those blue and white tins of condensed milk were the winter dessert staple of every Soviet kid.

The condensed milk (called in Russian: sgushchennoye moloko) had an indeterminately long shelf life and there was always plenty of it. It was a common dessert in the army too. It isn’t surprising to see it given away to bears, because unlike some stuff that was rationed the condensed milk in USSR was available in unlimited amounts.

Given the location is given as the ‘Chukchi Peninsula’ (otherwise known as Chukotka) and that newborn cubs are shown in two of the photos, I assume these photos were taken on Wrangel Island (probably the largest denning area in the world for polar bears) in March or April. At that time, Wrangel Island was commonly used for military exercises by Soviet soldiers; it remains a strategic location for Russia today.

The photos themselves show the bears were nowhere near ‘starving’. But we do know from decades of research and experience that polar bears are always looking for food and are attracted to a wide variety of made-made products, including the machinery that humans routinely use in the Arctic.

In other words, the first Soviet soldiers to have encountered these bears may have assumed what many people do when wild animals come close: that the animals are in trouble and need help. However, it’s likely the bears were merely curious and/or attracted by the smells of machine oil from the tanks or the strange sounds they made.

The bears would undoubtedly have accepted the handouts of sweet, high fat milk with relish but as soon as they were fed, they became habituated: they associated people with food. They became potentially dangerous garbage bears.

The soldiers in the photo below were very lucky this polar bear was not starving.

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