Animals certainly don’t have it easy – their constant struggle for survival has been well documented and, as such, incredible stories about them overcoming hardships are incredibly touching. This is especially true when humans are involved in helping them. In this story, two fishermen in Russia transcended the barrier between humans and nature when they came to the rescue of two bear cubs that found themselves in serious danger after being abandoned by their mother.
This story begins at Lake Vygozero, one of Russia’s most northerly parts near the border with Finland. During the winter months, the area becomes hazardous due to the lake freezing and the surrounding areas covered by a blanket of snow.
As such, people avoid visiting during this period – but animals cannot afford that luxury. They have to survive the elements and be prepared for anything nature might throw their way. This was the exact case for one mother bear and her cubs.
It was one such winter’s day that the mother bear desperately needed to cross the almost-frozen lake with her two small cubs to reach safety. Being stuck on a single spot of frozen land just wasn’t viable.
There wasn’t enough food, and something just had to be done. It was always going to be a challenge, but no one was prepared for what actually happened. Despite her best efforts, the mother bear’s plan was not to go quite as expected.
Seeing no other choice, she threw both cubs onto her back and dove into the freezing cold water. The land she was trying to reach was visible to her and, according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, brown bears are known to be strong swimmers.
But with the weight of two bear cubs on her back and sub-zero temperatures, it was no simple task – and it was unclear from the beginning whether she really stood a chance at getting them all across to safety.
Swimming as fast and as hard as she possibly could, the determined mother bear tried with all her might to cross the lake. But facing winds and strong currents, she began to grow tired long before her mission had been completed.
The moment of realization came, and the mother bear knew that the three of them would not be able to make it. Out of sheer panic, she did something that goes against all natural maternal instincts.
While many animals would give their life for their offspring without a second thought, this mother bear decided that her only chance of all three surviving the crossing would be to get her cubs off her back and continue alone.
At that moment, she began to shake her cubs until they both fell off her back and into the icy water. Freed from the weight, she continued to swim toward the other side of the lake. The cubs’ fate was hanging in the balance.
We can only assume that the mother bear had hoped her cubs would be healthy enough to swim across the lake themselves – but, unsurprisingly, they didn’t cope well with the conditions.
Learning to swim in a state of panic while battling roaring wind, freezing water, and rapid currents isn’t ideal, and the two cubs were struggling to keep their heads above the water. Meanwhile, their mother was nearly at the shore but hadn’t even looked back to check on them.
The current tossed the cubs’ small, weak bodies around relentlessly, and they just weren’t moving toward the shore at all. In fact, they soon began to drift away from it, and the situation looked dire for them both.
The mother bear, on the other hand, had now reached the safe side of the lake but seemed to be completely unphased by what was happening to her cubs – despite the fact they were losing strength and close to succumbing to the water.
The cubs, now in the middle of the lake, were completely taken by the current and began to drift downstream. This, however, was to be the turn of luck that they needed so desperately. Soon, they’d catch the attention of another living thing that could help them.
In the distance, there was something large and noisy in the water – and the current was pushing the cubs directly toward it. When all had seemed so nearly lost, they were about to receive help from the most unlikely of sources.
The mysterious object, as it turned out, was a fishing boat with two Russian fishermen on board. It wasn’t long before they noticed the bear cubs and soon determined that something was very seriously wrong.
But what could they do – how do you react to two struggling bear cubs in the water? Would it be too dangerous to try and help them? But that wouldn’t matter to the cubs – they were solely concerned with getting out of the water.
It wasn’t long before the cubs noticed the boat – even though it’s doubtful they had a clue what it was, this was obvious as they both began paddling as fast as they could toward it in a race for their life.
Their luck had turned yet again – this time, the current was working in their favor and pushing them toward safety instead of further away. Seeing this, the fisherman knew that they were going to have to do something – but what?
It had been a pleasant day for the two fishermen so far, who had intended to spend their time catching fish, talking, and taking in the serenity of the lake. Now, the bear cubs in front of them presented a dilemma that could potentially be dangerous.
Gasping for air and swinging their paws in panic, it was becoming harder and harder for them to keep their heads above water. With literally no one else around, the men realized they had to do something – or they would die.
There was one much bigger issue than the potential danger the cubs posed – their mother, who, at this point, could be seen hanging around the side of the lake. Although the fishermen were, of course, unaware she had abandoned them earlier, they were still wary.
Female bears are known for being extremely territorial – and very protective of their cubs. There was just no telling what she would do if she thought the fishermen were trying to hurt her babies. This made them second-guess their plan.
But that was only momentarily, as there was simply no time to lose. They would just have to take the risk of the cubs reacting badly once they were brought onto the boat with two humans.
Beginning the rescue operation, the two brave fishermen moved their boat as close to the cubs as possible while they considered the best way to go about pulling them onboard without hurting or scaring them in any way.
But before the fishermen could make a move, the cubs took matters into their own paws. One of them grabbed the side of the boat and attempted to climb in on its own, and the other closely followed suit.
This presented the fishermen with an ideal situation: maybe they wouldn’t have to physically touch the bears for them to make it out of the freezing water. It seemed like the perfect solution. Unfortunately, however, the cubs just weren’t strong enough.
After struggling in the water for so long, the cubs were extremely weak and just weren’t able to pull themselves up out of the water and into the boat. The fishermen had to think fast – what on earth could they use to help the cubs?
One fisherman grabbed the nearest thing – a fishing net – and attempted to haul the first bear into the boat. Unfortunately, however, whether it was due to the angle or the sheer weight of the cub, it didn’t work.
Ultimately – and somewhat surprisingly – the trick lay with the bear cubs themselves. Still struggling against the current and to keep its head above the surface of the water, the first bear tried clenching its teeth against the side of the boat to hold itself up.
It worked! Like many other mammals, bears have an incredibly powerful jaw that helps them hunt and eat – but also much more! Luckily, one bear had realized this at the nick of time, and it was to be the saving grace for both of them.
The bears were able to rest their weary arms and legs by maintaining a strong bite on the side of the boat, but it was unclear whether this would be enough to actually save them. Their bodies were still suffering.
The fishermen suspected this wouldn’t be enough and felt they had to do more to help, but they needed to act fast – and they were still very wary of being so close to such a strong, notoriously dangerous wild animal.
It was then that one of the fishermen experienced a profound moment with one cub that he later described as an ‘emotional bonding moment’ – he found himself eye to eye with the cub and felt as though there was a mutual understanding between them.
It was as though the desperate cub knew the man only wanted to help, and the fisherman felt that, because of this, he would not be harmed in the process. It was clear that the decision to save them was the right one.
It was time to make one last effort to get them on the boat entirely – and now they were holding onto the boat and staying relatively still, the fishermen were confident they would be able to do it.
Once again, using the fishing net, they began to push the first cub from behind. The fishermen were constantly encouraging and trying to soothe the cubs during their efforts to get them out the water.
In the camera footage of the incident, which was later released, the fishermen can be heard talking to the cubs as if they were children, saying “Don’t be afraid, just don’t be afraid. We’ll rescue you, don’t be afraid.”
It wasn’t easy by any means but, miraculously, the first cub was lifted into the boat. The second closely followed – now, both of them were successfully out of the icy water. But the ordeal wasn’t over yet.
In a state of shock, the two bear cubs sat in the corner of the boat, shivering and gasping for breath. The fishermen tried to remain calm, but having two loose bears – cubs or not – on their boat was terrifying.
For the bears, who had likely never encountered humans before in their lives, it was also a daunting experience, and it was unclear how they would react. Could this heroic rescue turn incredibly dangerous?
Thankfully, though, it seemed that the bears were just relieved to be out of the freezing water and in a place of safety. It was as though they were totally aware of just how close they had come to die in the water.
Neither cub showed any sign of wanting to harm its rescuers, nor the fishermen felt no threat and so, therefore, began to relax and formulate the next stage of the rescue operation.
The fishermen knew that the priority was to get the bear cubs back to land and set them free. Ideally, they wanted to find their mother – who, by this point, had disappeared – and release them back to her. But would they be able to find her?
Luckily, they knew Lake Vygozero exceptionally well and had a good idea where the mother bear might have gone. Heading toward the island, they kept a lookout. But they had to remember that with a mother bear came potential danger.
While the fishermen were certain that the mother bear would be glad to be reunited with her two cubs, they were unsure how she would react to seeing them with humans. This made them nervous, and they knew they’d have to act with extreme caution.
Bears naturally see humans as a threat – and this is always heightened when cubs are involved! And fully grown Eurasian brown bears can be deadly …
The fishermen decided that they’d take the risk, as they had to do whatever they could to help the cubs – after all, the bear has historically been a symbol of Russia and a great source of pride for the Russian people.
Additionally, there were no guarantees that they would even be able to find the mother bear anyway. They finally reached the island on which they suspected she was.
Stopping on the shore, they began to search for bear trails or any sign that the mother bear could have recently passed through the area. They didn’t see anything. They also scanned the woods in the distance but, again, there was no sign of the bear.
The cubs had to be missing their mother by now, and the fishermen grew uncertain of what they should do next. It was too dangerous to go wandering around the island, as if they disturbed the bear, it could prove fatal.
The fishermen decided to wait at the shore for a while but, after some time passed, there was still no sign of the mother bear. There was no other choice – the cubs would have to be left there.
The fishermen lifted the bear cubs in their arms and made their way onto the island – all the while keeping an eye out for the mother bear in case she suddenly appeared. Then, something happened that truly touched their hearts.
When they reached the island, they tried to put the cubs on the ground. Astonishingly, the bears were reluctant to let go! It seemed as though they had formed strong bonds with their rescuers after such an ordeal.
Maybe they realized that their mother had left them and feared they would not find her again. They possibly felt so safe with the fishermen after being rescued that they just didn’t want to leave their saviors.
As adorable as the gesture was, the fishermen had to get them to let go – for obvious reasons. There was no way they could keep the cubs on the boat for longer – there was a danger that the shock would wear off and they would turn aggressive.
Eventually, the cubs let go of their arms and began walking toward the wood, presumably going in search of their mother. It seemed as though they were almost sad to be leaving their new-found friends.
The fishermen were sad to leave as well, as they too felt as though they had formed some kind of bond with the animals. Additionally, the fate of the cubs was unknown, and the fishermen worried about their safety.
They knew they had done the right thing, however, and that there was nothing more they could do now. Luckily, though, they had recorded the whole ordeal on camera, so they’d be able to watch it whenever they wanted.
This leads us to question the motives behind the mother bear’s seemingly ruthless act of abandonment. Although it might seem cruel to the human observer, it has been well documented that many animals – including bears – sometimes abandon their young if it’s necessary to remain alive.
We must remember that we can’t judge wild animals using human emotions or ideals. What might seem like a calculated, heartless decision to the human observer is really more of a survival instinct for many animals.
Quite simply, while crossing the icy water with her cubs on her back, the mother bear in this story felt that the three of them had a better chance of survival if she shook them loose – so she did.
It may seem shocking, but life in the wild is not always straight-forward – especially not for bears. In fact, these particular animals are known for going even further in their brutality.
Both female and male bears are known to go so far as to even purposefully kill their young when it is deemed necessary. Again, it’s all about survival in harsh climates and difficult scenarios rather than a deliberate, unkind act.
This is a well-documented fact – although the reasons behind the killing differ for female and male bears. In the following paragraphs, we explore this strange, brutal behavior and examine the reasons behind it.
According to a story published by National Geographic in 2014, a wild mother bear will kill and eat her cubs if they are born unhealthy or significantly deformed. This has been confirmed by multiple wildlife experts.
Another reason for a mother bear to commit infanticide is if food is too scarce – she will, quite simply, sacrifice her cubs for her own sake. “They become a resource, one she can’t afford to waste,” a mammal curator is quoted in the article as saying.
Also, if a cub dies unintentionally, the mother bear is likely to eat it immediately. In addition to providing her with more food, the act has the added bonus of avoiding having a rotting carcass in her den, which will attract predators.
This is just a part of the harsh reality that is life as a bear. Male bears, on the other hand, have different reasons for acts of infanticide. Without a strong paternal instinct, they pose a much greater threat to bear cubs than females do.
Male bears will gladly kill and eat cubs simply because they regard them as a good source of food. Shockingly, they will even kill and eat their own cubs without so much as a second thought.
This is because male bears lack any kind of paternal instinct – that is to say, they feel no attachment to their own cubs. In fact, it is common for male bears to be unable to tell their own cubs apart from others.
Consequently, bear cubs only have one real choice: stay with their mother until they’re old enough and strong enough to defend themselves. Although they’re not guaranteed safety with her, it’s a much better option than going it alone.
Just because a mother bear will kill and consume her young in extreme circumstances doesn’t mean that she won’t nurture and care for them in most instances – and protect them when she feels they are under threat.
That means even fighting of male bears that are much larger and stronger than the mother bear. This isn’t rare, as there’s a likelihood that cubs will be attacked by their father if they enter his territory.
Humans are also perceived to be a great threat to cubs, which is why the fishermen in this particular story were initially extremely wary of helping the cubs and trying to find their mother.
Proceeding with extreme caution was an incredibly sensible decision by the fishermen, therefore – especially as the bears were highly likely to be Eurasian brown bears due to the location along the Russia-Finland border.
Adept in surviving extreme climates, these shaggy-haired bears are known to be particularly unpredictable and aggressive in the face of a potential threat, so it’s probably a good thing the fishermen didn’t manage to find the mother!
All in all, what could have turned out to be a terrible tragedy for two bear cubs and their mother turned into a heart-warming story of affiliation between two men and two wild animals.
Placing their total faith in a species that would normally be regarded as an extreme threat to their safety, the bears were able to overcome certain death by drowning. Hopefully, they found their mother and got their happy ending.