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polar bear

15 february 2020

I collect images of animals. Little figurines of dogs, mostly; I inherited a few cheap china dogs and have added others over the years. But in my office, where I keep these trinkets, the second-most-represented animals are polar bears. I have a polar teddy bear named Baptiste who wears Mardi Gras finery, a little beanie polar bear, a resin figure polar bear, a stylized polar bear carved from wood, a picture of a polar bear on his ice floe surrounded by books that someone commissioned for me, and on my door a metal plate featuring a polar bear, flat on his back, drinking Campari out of a huge bottle.

This engagement with Ursus maritimus dates back to the heyday of Knut, the late star polar bear cub of the Berlin zoo. Knut features prominently in Margery Fee's Reaktion Animal volume Polar Bear; in his brief life Knut foregrounded many of the problems and opportunities that confront the world's largest land predator.

Fee makes a solid contribution to the Animal series, presenting polar bears through stemmatics, ethology, conservation concerns, art and culture, ecotourism, zoos, circuses, and other forms of conspicuous display.

One factor complicating any discussion of the polar bear is knowing just how many there are. Their numbers have to be inferred, since so many live far from any human observers. Many live in northernmost Siberia, where Russian authorities and researchers aren't even interested in inferring their numbers. It is likely that melting Arctic ice is diminishing polar bear habitat. But that very factor pushes some bear populations southward into areas more populated by humans, so that we see more bears.

Fee concludes that, for the moment, polar bears are not on the brink of extinction. If Arctic seas warm into widespread openness, though, bears will have a tough time adjusting. Genetically akin to brown bears that live on land, and not long divergent from them in evolutionary terms, polar bears could theoretically adapt to terrestrial feeding. But at the moment most polar bears live almost entirely on seals that they catch in the ocean, and their sealing has to be done from shelves of ice.

Art and story abound with stories of ravening polar bears in combat with human explorers. In fact, polar bears are retiring and uninterested in humans. (We're not fat enough to eat, for the most part.) Bears live in relative proximity to people in Churchill, Manitoba and in Svalbard in the Norwegian archipelago. With some care, the balance between human and bear can be negotiated. Churchill has devoted a lot of resources to careful segregation of bears from people, and in consequence has fostered quite a bear-tourism industry, a kind of Arctic wildlife park where the truly be-parked species is Homo sapiens, surrounded by bears.

Bears, as Knut proved, are cute as all get-out, and feature as top zoo attractions in real life and as foolproof imagery in advertising. As the most charismatic of the megafauna that are up against oil spills and global warming, polar bears provide iconic representatives for ecoconscious folk. Yet they remain little-known close up. And as zoos come to critique the wisdom of keeping them in temperate climates, we may see less and less of polar bears in person. Fee documents traditions of keeping polar bears in southern captivity that go back to ancient Rome and Egypt, and include several early-modern royal pets who went for regular swims in capital rivers like London's Thames. (More grim to imagine, Londoners also kept bears to be baited by fighting dogs.) But as we come to our senses about imprisoning bears, we also allow them fewer opportunities to make their case to us. Ursine ambassadors may have sacrificed their comfort to raise human concern for their relatives back in the wild.

Fee, Margery. Polar Bear. London: Reaktion, 2019.