FAMILIES could bear-ly believe their eyes when they saw a polar bear padding around inside a town centre shopping mall.

Delighted children had the chance to make friends with the giant furry creature, named Bjorn, as he made a series of appearances at Crompton Place.

But, despite his highly realistic look, Bjorn hasn’t been flown into Bolton from the North Pole – he is an animatronic creature.

Bjorn was introduced to families and curious shoppers as he prowled around on an ‘iceberg’ by an Eskimo called ‘George’.

The incredibly lifelike movements and gentle low-growls of Bjorn enchanted children of all ages.

And little Summer Stephenson, aged seven, was invited to beckon Bjorn with some food and stroke him.

After Bjorn was taken away for a ‘rest’ Summer, from Bromley Cross, said: “It was very good, I’ve always wanted to meet a real polar bear but I’ve never met one before.

“I thought he was quite cute really. He was really big, but he didn’t frighten me, but he frightened my little sister a little bit at first.”

The High Lawn Primary School pupil’s grandmother, Susan Dobbins, added: “I thought it was amazing – very realistic.”

Other little ones also got to pat and stroke the life-sized animatronic animal as he patrolled the perimeter of the ‘ice berg’.

The hungry creature even strayed out from his ‘enclosure’ in the search for food – to squeals of delight - sweet treats and drinks seemed to particularly attract his attention.

His animatronic antics captured the imagination of children and adults alike – and they got to learn something too.

‘George’ told them plenty of polar bear facts, including that polar bears live in the arctic where temperatures are as low as minus-40 degrees.

And they also found out that, despite appearance, a polar bear is not white.

Their skin is all black and their two coats of fur are actually completely transparent, but appears white because of the way light behaves.

And children also learned Bjorn’s real-life counterparts are just as big as he is. Polar bears are the largest species of bear and an adult males weights between 75 and 150 stone, standing three-to-four metres tall on their hind legs.

It was a daunting, if magical, sight for some of the youngsters who had come to meet him, but they seemed to enjoy the experience.

Kera Matthews, aged 10, from Tonge Moor, said: “It was really cool. It scared me a bit at first but I liked how soft he felt and he was really big as well. He was very realistic.”

Her eight-year-old sister, Keelie, added: “He didn’t scare me, I enjoyed it. I liked his fur the best, it was really soft.”

Families are invited to meet a host of magical animals — including a pair of eco-friendly squirrels and a reindeer named Rudolph — every Saturday until 23 December in the unit between Select and Beaverbrooks.