A Beast for the Ages

Why do we love (and fear, and kill) polar bears with so much intensity?

Michael Engelhard | Excerpt adapted from Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon | University of Washington Press | November 2016 | 13 minutes (3,295 words)

 

Stories… can separate us from animals as easily as they can connect us. And the best stories are likely to complicate our relationships, not simplify them.
— Christopher R. Beha, Animal Attraction (2011)

These days, no animal except perhaps the wolf divides opinions as strongly as does the polar bear, top predator and sentinel species of the Arctic. But while wolf protests are largely a North American and European phenomenon, polar bears unite conservationists — and their detractors — worldwide.

In 2008, in preparation for the presidential election, the Republican Party’s vice-presidential candidate, Alaska governor Sarah Palin, ventured to my then hometown, Fairbanks, to rally the troops. Outside the building in which she was scheduled to speak, a small mob of Democrats, radicals, tree-huggers, anti-lobbyists, feminists, gays and lesbians, and other “misfits” had assembled in a demonstration vastly outnumbered by the governor’s supporters. As governor, the “pro-life” vice-presidential candidate and self-styled “mama grizzly” had just announced that the state of Alaska would legally challenge the decision of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to list the polar bear as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. Listing it would block development and thereby endanger jobs, the worn argument went.

Regularly guiding wilderness trips in Alaska’s Arctic and feeling that my livelihood as well as my sanity depended upon the continued existence of the white bears and their home ground, I, who normally shun crowds, had shown up with a crude homemade sign: Polar Bears want babies, too. Stop our addiction to oil! I was protesting recurring attempts to open the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, the area with the highest concentration of polar bear dens in Alaska, to drilling. From the top of my sign a plush polar bear toy dangled, as if in effigy. Though wary of anthropomorphizing animals, I was not above playing that card.

As we were marching and chanting, I checked the responses of passersby. A rattletrap truck driving down Airport Way caught my eye. The driver, a stereotypical crusty Alaskan, showed me the finger. Unbeknownst to him, his passenger — a curly haired, grandmotherly Native woman, perhaps his spouse — gave me a big, cheery thumbs-up.

The incident framed opposing worldviews within a single snapshot but did not surprise me. My home state has long been contested ground, and the bear a cartoonish, incendiary character. Already in 1867, when Secretary of State William H. Seward purchased Alaska from Russia, the Republican press mocked the new territory as “[President] Johnson’s polar bear garden” — where little else grows.

Between 1871 and 1973, two thousand polar bears went to zoos, carnivals, and vaudeville theaters all over the world.

In those days, polar bears were at best seen as a nuisance and at worst as a practice target. Sealers killed them because they competed for seals. Their flesh fed explorers and whalers. Their hides carpeted the homes of wealthy burghers and industrialists. One commercial hunter alone could make a big dent in polar bear numbers. The Norwegian trapper Henry Rudi, a man with a twinkle in his eye, earned the sobriquet “Polar Bear King” for killing a total of 713 polar bears on Norway’s Arctic Svalbard and Jan Mayen Islands and in Greenland between 1907 and 1947. Scottish whalers from Dundee shot as many bears in a single season. They and Rudi, a Norwegian Medal of Merit recipient, together wiped out the equivalent of the estimated current population of polar bears in Canada’s Baffin Bay. Losses through live capture also were considerable. Between 1871 and 1973, two thousand polar bears went to zoos, carnivals, and vaudeville theaters all over the world.

As awareness of declining numbers grew, the first conservation measures seemed necessary, if only for economic reasons. The Danish East Greenland Nanok Company, a hunting and trapping outfit, from 1937 onward proscribed months in which polar bears could be hunted and forbade killing the slowly reproducing females and their cubs. Government regulations quickly followed, first in Greenland in 1950. They protected females with cubs year-round and all bears in the summer. In 1956, the USSR closed its polar bear hunt, concerned with the bear’s possible extinction from overhunting. In Canada, after 1967, bears could no longer be killed in their dens, a method especially popular before the advent of firearms. By 1973, poison, foot traps, and “spring guns” — self-killing guns with a string to the trigger attached to bait — as well as hunting by aircraft or snowmobile, had been banned throughout Greenland.

The same year, after similar developments in other “polar bear nations,” Canada, Denmark, Norway, the United States, and the USSR signed the International Agreement on the Conservation of Polar Bears and Their Habitat, which regulated commercial hunting and forbade the capture of bears for circuses and zoos. (The agreement does not mention it, but zoos still can adopt orphaned cubs.) Polar bears could henceforth be killed only for scientific reasons, or in self-defense, or by Native peoples who had traditionally done so. Inuit were allowed a quota based on the numbers and health of Canadian polar bear populations. Their communities could also sell some of these permits to non-Native trophy hunters for much-needed revenue.

In 2005, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) — also known as the “Red Cross of the conservation movement” — upgraded the polar bear’s status from a “species of least concern” to “vulnerable.” The U.S. government, under the Endangered Species Act, in 2008 declared the bear “threatened.” As climate change and resource extraction in the Arctic became a more serious threat, the five signatories of the 1973 agreement reconvened in 2009 and 2013 to discuss further, or further-reaching, measures of polar bear conservation. An attempt to outlaw all trade in polar bear parts under the international Convention on the Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) failed in 2010. Too many traditions collided. Too many interests intervened at the bargaining table. But some form of regulation is badly needed. In the curio market, polar bear parts yield a nice chunk of change: twenty dollars for a hind claw; fifty for a front claw; two hundred for a canine; a thousand for a skull; and ten thousand to twenty-four thousand for a pelt.

Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism, partly explain why they so appeal to me.

The white bear of the Arctic looms large in human history, and not just because of its size. In part, our fascination with it springs from the charisma all large predators share: their quickness, intensity, and acuity, magnified by their strength. It is the idea of their unfettered existence, their calm in the crucial moments, that attract us. We see ourselves in them. “Their courage is in their breast, their resolution in their head,” the anonymous scribe of the thirteenth-century Aberdeen Liber de bestiarum natura explained. “They are called ‘beasts’ from the force with which they rage; They are called ‘wild’ because they enjoy their natural liberty and are borne along by their desires. They are free of will, and wander here and there, and where their instinct takes them, there they are borne.” Nine hundred years later, a children’s book author reprised the theme, enthusing about bears that roam “over sea made solid, knowing nothing of false borders and boundaries, caring nothing for the concerns of man.” Unlike us, polar bears are not very gregarious. Neither am I, and that, as well as their nomadism, partly explain why they so appeal to me.

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example. Over the past eight thousand years, we have regarded it as food, toy, pet, trophy, status symbol, commodity, man-eating monster, spirit familiar, circus act, zoo superstar, and political cause célèbre. We have feared, venerated, locked up, coveted, butchered, sold, pitied, and emulated this large carnivore. It has left few emotions unstirred. Where the bears’ negative image prevailed, as so often, a perceived competition for resources or a threat to our dominion were the cause.

Bears — and in particular polar bears — might not dwell in our neighborhoods but they do live in the collective consciousness. I have turned to this creature as other, like the cultural critic Paul Shepard, “in a world where otherness of all kinds is in danger, and in which otherness is essential to the discovery of the true self.” Animals, which we have hunted, worshipped, and observed for tens of thousands of years, have made us who we are. An attitude that accepts them as separate and different yet also as fully formed equals is rare and found mostly among tribal peoples and a few select naturalist-authors — Aldo Leopold, Loren Eiseley, Edward Abbey, Georg Schaller, Bernd Heinrich, E. O. Wilson, Ellen Meloy, Jane Goodall, and Konrad Lorenz among them. None of them, to my knowledge, has written a single sentence about polar bears. But Ellen Meloy shed light on the mystery of glances that cross species boundaries, the tenuous connection that also hooked me: “Each time I look into the eye of an animal, one as ‘wild’ as I can find in its own element — or maybe peering through zoo bars will have to do — and if I get over the mess of ‘Do I eat it, or vice versa?’ […] I find myself staring into a mirror of my own imagination […] There is in that animal eye something both alien and familiar.”

Championing this elusive species that is native to where I live, I’ve attempted to peel back layers of meaning and find the creature underneath.

Deeply held preconceptions keep us from seeing the true nature of some animals. The polar bear is a prime example.

“Take a walk on the wild side and see polar bears in their natural habitat before they are gone”: a small Alaska airline hawks its brand of extinction tourism, an overnight packaged trip to the shores of the Arctic Ocean. You put the white bears on your bucket list and make sure you see them before you — or they — kick it.

I did too. The rush of my first polar bear sighting still affects me.

After years of trying to break into a highly competitive job market (competitive not because of the wages but because of the fringe benefits, which include fitness, wildlife, and some of the world’s most addictive scenery), I was finally guiding a rafting trip on the Marsh Fork of the Canning, a Brooks Range river flowing north to the Beaufort Sea. Its course marks the western boundary of Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and from our trip’s take-out point — a tundra airstrip — you can see gas flares in Prudhoe Bay’s oil fields. We never expected to see a polar bear: we were thirty miles from the coast.

Sipping coffee in the morning’s quiet, looking south from the top of the bluff where we had pitched our tents, I noticed a white lump on the bench below muscling toward camp. I could not believe my eyes. The clients popped from their nylon cocoons like ground squirrels from their burrows when I alerted them, one clad in nothing but boxer shorts and a down jacket.

I pretty much knew my way around grizzlies but was a polar bear novice.

The bear’s wedge of a head swung on its pendulous neck, snakelike, gauging god-knows-what. This far from the coast, radiant against heather and willows, the bear looked more out of place than it would have in a zoo. Without a care in the world, it then lay down for a nap halfway up the bluff’s slope, a quarter mile from us. What was there for it to fear?

We sat and kept our binoculars trained on the white pile, which could easily have been mistaken for a limestone boulder. Occasionally, the bear lifted its head to sample the air. We crouched downwind from it, and it remained unaware of our presence. In the next hour or so, a golden eagle flew past, a wolf sauntered by, and gulls kept mobbing it — but the bear never stirred.

When we shoved into the current a few hours after the initial sighting, the bear was up and moving again, sniffing and pawing through bushes on the bench. We stole away like thieves, trying to avoid its attention.

As low-key as the episode had been, we all agreed it had been a highlight of our outdoor lives. Without moats, steel bars, gunwales, rifles, or expectations between the bear and us, anything could have happened. Real contact, physical, life-changing contact, had been a possibility.

Animals, which we have hunted, worshipped, and observed for tens of thousands of years, have made us who we are.

I have long been aware of some ironies, such as the fact that setting out to meet polar bears in the wild is largely a privilege for the financially — if not always physically — sound, while locals who live with the bears often struggle to make ends meet. If I did not work as a guide, having my way paid and burning fossil fuels to reach the job site, I would have to visit a zoo to come face to face with live polar bears.

What draws me, my clients, and many other people toward these wanderers of the ice as if they were long-lost kin? One explanation lies in biological contact points, the physical and behavioral similarities between them and us. In the Arctic, only humans and bears hunt sea mammals, and bears are the only creatures to sometimes kill humans. Among the polar bear’s human-like characteristics, the upright posture of fighting males or inquisitive bears might be the most impressive. In the northern hemisphere, where apes were unknown, bipedalism is otherwise found only in lemmings, ermines, ground squirrels, marmots, and owls, to which Native peoples also ascribed human qualities. In both species the sexes differ in size: adult male polar bears weigh twice as much as breeding females, while in Homo sapiens, the difference is normally less pronounced. For a long time, people even believed that bears have sex in the missionary position. “The female is said to be more lustful than the male,” wrote the eighteenth-century French naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon. “Some claim that, in order to receive him, she lies on her back, embraces him, holds him fast, etc.”

The bear is a plantigrade walker, placing its entire sole on the ground, as humans do, and prints from its hind feet in particular resemble barefoot human tracks. Its eyes are aligned in a nearly frontal plane. Visual acuity, a keen sense of hearing and smell, dexterity, and a broad variety of vocalizations further strengthen the resemblance. Many Native people think that polar bears, like people, differ in personality: some are aggressive, others are timid. By observing them, the Inuit supposedly learned seal-hunting techniques: stalking seals hauled out on the ice, waiting at their breathing holes, sometimes scratching the ice nearby to lure these curious animals. Like ravens, polar bears are thought to possess what the Inuit call isuma — the ability to reason — and like ravens, they ceaselessly investigate their surroundings. As seaworthy terrestrial creatures, polar bears conceptually connect animals of the sea and those of the land. (Modern science proves that the bears’ closest non-ursine relatives are in fact doglike animals and seals, a genetic underpinning to their position between land and sea.) In some Native minds they also mediate between this world and the spirit world, between nature and culture.

Like Homo sapiens, Ursus maritimus can be an opportunistic feeder with an appetite that rivals its curiosity, though it thrives on a largely meat-based diet. It moves seasonally between summer and winter grounds, as the Inuit used to. And while polar bears, unlike people, are not very social, they occasionally share a kill with another bear and feed in large numbers on dead, stranded whales.

Like ravens, polar bears are thought to possess what the Inuit call isuma — the ability to reason — and like ravens, they ceaselessly investigate their surroundings.

The polar bear’s maternal dedication impresses us as much as its fitness as a predator. Pregnant females den in the winter, and the interior shape and material of their shelter recalls the igloo. The den is very clean, as the female stops eating and defecating before giving birth. The newborns — pink, helpless, and thinly haired — suggest our babies, just as a skinned adult bear resembles a naked adult human. Polar bear mothers bond strongly with their offspring but sometimes also discipline them with a growl or cuff. They generally nurse in a sitting posture, with one or two cubs on their chest. The young slide down snowy slopes, wrestle, and play tug of war.

For Siberia’s Chukchi people, the resemblance between humans and bears exceeded biological traits, extending to the cultural. They believed that a tribe of polar bears with human faces and gentle customs lived somewhere on North America’s shores, hunting walruses and seals, building snow dens lit with oil lamps, and engaging in long expeditions. (This mythic tribe could well have been the bearskin-clad Inuit of the Central Canadian Arctic.) Lastly, like us, polar bears are blessed with a relatively long lifespan — more than twenty years in the wild and close to forty in captivity.

Complementing these similarities, some of the bear’s more “exotic” traits fuel our imagination. Foremost perhaps are its whiteness, its relative rareness, and the remoteness of its home — the far northern reaches, long unknown to Europeans, where danger, dragons, and mystery dwelled.

Far from being intertwined exclusively with its Arctic indigenous neighbors, the polar bear has lately assumed iconic status in mainstream culture. With the wholesale domestication or destruction of wildness that marks industrial civilization, the polar bear has become a focus of our self-awareness, contentious as no other animal is. Its ascent from food to coveted curiosity to pampered celebrity may seem incremental, inconsequential even, but it speaks volumes about our relations with nature. Transferring polar bears — or their body parts or representations — into highly charged cultural contexts, we share in their essence and employ them for our own purposes.

In the wake of its first importation into Europe, the bear triggered scientific curiosity and inspired artworks and nationalistic myth building; it enlivened heraldic devices and Shakespeare’s plays; in naval paintings, it defined the self-image of Britannia as a nation. On the eve of industrial revolution, the English turned bear-slaying into a symbol of manhood and expansionist drives. With the waning of Arctic exploration, the bear’s economic and even symbolic importance diminished. It was relegated to advertising, trophy hunting, or popular culture until, starting in the 1980s, conservationists promoted it as both an indicator of environmental degradation and also a symbol of hope. (Ironically, oil companies co-funded some of that period’s polar bear research, fulfilling government stipulations.) Where wildness is threatened the bear has been elevated. Its revived economic clout boosts films, fundraising campaigns, eco-merchandise sales, and high-end wildlife tourism.

Across cultures and time, its whiteness invited projection, and we eagerly saddled it with our fears, fantasies, and ambitions. Like the blank spots on explorers’ maps, it keeps us forever guessing its true nature.

The traditions of northern Native peoples regarding polar bears frequently intersect with this “Western” trajectory, contradicting as well as enriching our knowledge of the animal. Indigenous concepts of kinship and transformation force us to reassess mechanistic, Cartesian views of the animate world.

My biggest surprise in learning about this subject has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear, which is particularly striking in fast-changing countries such as the United States. The bear is sometimes still a sexual predator or a “stud”; it still is protector, is killer, is idol; it can still serve as the embodiment of a nation, as figurehead for a group of people.

Even before its first contact with European naturalists, the white bear defied easy categorization. Coupling with grizzlies, giving birth to mixed offspring, mingling with walruses and whales, it continues to do so. It’s a creature of edges, one that, in the words of Barry Lopez, “hunts the ice margins, the surface of the water, and the continental shore.” It straddles the line between physical and metaphysical realms. Across cultures and time, its whiteness invited projection, and we eagerly saddled it with our fears, fantasies, and ambitions. Like the blank spots on explorers’ maps, it keeps us forever guessing its true nature. It is our chance to redeem ourselves — or at least to face our shortcomings. Without it, the world would be less colorful, less complete.

For the lore and awe it inspires, for the diversity and the sheer life force it adds to the world, I hope that the great white bear will continue to prowl both our internal and external landscapes for thousands of years to come.

* * *

Michael Engelhard is the author of the award-winning essay collection American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean and of Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon. Trained as an anthropologist at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, he now lives in Flagstaff, Arizona, and works as a wilderness guide in the Grand Canyon.