Polar Bear

Photo: Steve Kazlowski/DRR

Like the bears themselves, the first men to see polar bears were probably swaddled in heavy furs. The earliest human inhabitants of the Arctic regarded Nanuk first as a dangerous predator, then as a rival hunter, and lastly as an animal to be hunted for its red meat and white coat. Somewhere along the line, the proto-Inuits also assigned to the ghostly white bear supernatural qualities — it was surely the Lord of the Arctic, as mere humans could never be, comfortable in a perpetually frozen world. The Inuits — then and now — feared and worshipped the bear. They occasionally killed and ate it, but only after the bear spirits had been appropriately propitiated. The first Europeans to visit the desolate homeland of Ursus maritimus shot them whenever an opportunity presented itself. Sometimes bears were captured and brought back to European menageries or zoos, where they were exhibited to visitors who looked upon the great white bears as emissaries from a world where the sun shines dimly for half the year and the land is made of ice.

It is highly unlikely that the word “cute” was popular with Arctic explorers or whalers, but once the general public was able to see a baby polar bear, everything changed. Baby polar bears are almost insufferably cuddly, and their black button eyes and snow-white fur make them ideal inspirations for stuffed-animal dolls. In 2006, the New York Times science writer Natalie Angier wrote “The Cute Factor,” an article in which she identified some of the qualities that make something look cute: “bright, forward-facing eyes set low on a big round face, a pair of big round ears, floppy limbs, and a side-to-side, teeter-totter gait.” The paradigm, of course, is the human toddler, but also fulfilling these criteria are baby pandas, puppies of many dog breeds, koalas, young lions, tigers, and leopards, and bear cubs of all species.

Today, the image of the polar bear — adult and roly-poly cub — has become the very symbol of the Arctic. It appears in the coat of arms of Greenland, on the license plates of Nunavut, and as a common theme in a large proportion of the items sold in the gift shops and airports of Churchill, Anchorage, Nome, Sitka, and Juneau. Polar bears appear on caps, sweat shirts, t-shirts, place mats, jigsaw puzzles, mouse pads, charms, jewelry, night lights, figurines, pillows, blankets, calendars, Christmas tree ornaments, Christmas cards, and any other knick-knack you could possibly think of. I own a tie with polar bears on it, bought in the general store at Churchill. Early in the 1990s, the Coca-Cola company began using the polar bear in its advertising, and produced several television commercials that showed the bears drinking Coke (“Always Cool, Always Coke”). The campaign was so successful that Coke went on to produce a whole line of gift items that had polar bears on them, including drinking cups (naturally), storage tins, statuettes, collector spoons, stationery, stickers, lunchboxes, and legions of little stuffed bears wearing the Coca-Cola logo.

Most bears are dark-colored creatures of temperate forests, although there are some that live in the mountains of South and North America. Perhaps foremost among the reasons for the elevation of the polar bear to superstar status is its glaring incongruity. It is not so much the bear that is out of place — it is the place that is out of place. Whitened out, horizonless landscapes are not the world we know. The great white bear is an alien being in a setting that might be on a frozen planet somewhere in space. Through art, photographs, and moving images, we have become familiar with the ice bear, but its lifestyle is radically different from that of any other species of bear — or any other animal, for that matter. The polar bear is an integral part of its environment, as white as the snow and ice it lives in. The bear draws its power from its whiteness; it is an all-conquering, heavy snowstorm of a creature, fearing nothing.


  1. This creature, without wanting too, has become the symbol of our efforts to combat global climate change; whether we can battle the changes or not, this Bear will be our “yard stick” as to our successes or failures… I have travelled to many places and seen bears from the American Black Bear to the Coastal Brown Bears of Katmai, the Brown Bears of Denali to the Plains Brown Bears of the Montana Front Range. This year I will trek to Churchill with Dr. Charles Jonkel (Great Bear Foundation) to see the Great Ice Bear. I have a distinct feeling that this will be my one and only opportunity to see the Polar Bear, I must say that regardless of my thoughts on how well we will/will not battle climate change I believe that the great Ice Bears days are unfortunately numbered…..

  2. I have been trying to figure out what will happen to the Polar Bear??Should we give up?? The lack of discussion re environmental issues in the “Elections” is not very encouraging..Jean

  3. I appeared in my polar bear costume at a press conference held by (my)Oklahoma Sen James Inhofe..He was friendly,but stated that Polar Bears are overpopulated..Lots of people believe him .It would great if he could be defeated!!!! Jean

  4. yes it is sad that the polae bear is suffering for our mistakes. but there is no way to stop climate change. its going to happen. millions of years ago idaho and the midwest was a giant lake, and because of climate change the lake dryed up and left us with rich mineral soil. and until we can learn to live sustainibly climate change and global warming are going to come a lot quicker.

  5. I am really gonna miss the polar bears so keep trying don’t give up. Think about it if the polar bears go extinct your children’s children’s children’s will ask “what is a polar bear?” DO YOU REALLY WANT THAT TO HAPPEN? Keep trying please for the sake of humanty.

  6. if nobody tries then you’re all failures, my family is trying to limit all things that give off gas and trying to go veg..we arereally into it you all have to do something! and the polar bears days will not be numbered if we keep trying as a nation!

  7. I believe we can do something to save the Polar Bear, right now I’m not confident enough to be sure we can. Our family too is doing all that we can to limit our carbon foot-print but getting that message out to other folks is not easy when so many don’t care about limiting their use of resources and so many will never see a Polar Bear in its own environment. As Americans we should be leading the World on how to combat climate change but our current Administration has no interest at all because doing something means affecting the shareholders bottom line…. So as a general consequence of our nation’s inaction we are losing the battle and that does not reflect well for us, when are we going to learn that its ONE world not many different worlds and that EVERYTHING is inextricably linked!

  8. These creatures are totally dangerous!! I heard in alaska this guy just had to go get coffee at 4 am in the morning, and on his way it was pitch black and the guy ran into a polar bear and the polar bear smashed the whole front end of the car up!! The dude couldn’t make his own coffee at home, it’s like cooome oooon man!!!!!!!

  9. Agreed, Polar Bears are dangerous, but that is because we have invaded their territory and we always forget that, maybe you think we’re better that mere animals but if you don’t wake up and smell the coffee you’re going to be on the endangered species list pretty soon if we don’t try to combat global climate change. I’m always amazed at the complete lack of respect for the natural world and how we fit into it…….

  10. No we have NOT invaded the Bear’s Territory.
    Humans and animals SHARE space. The trick is to share it well.
    People who try to maintain culturally enforced lines of division between wild and tame are the biggest part of the problem.
    The wild is all around you whether in cities or in the Arctic.
    Picking one species as a poster emblem is also part of the problem. It’s only of use to those who consume the wild a distant fantasy; a postcard or TV show.
    The Polar Bear will NOT go extinct. Even the worst predictions still believe the bears will survive into the high arctic.
    We don’t need poster species and nice white middle class folks wringing their hands while spouting eco-platitudes.
    We need a much wider understanding that takes into account the value of bears to the Northern economy, diet, culture and eco-system.
    It’s complicated but necessary. Anything else is mere pantomime and cathartic posing.

  11. JS, we hear a lot of things about bears, especially in Alaska, and having spent the last few years studying and working with bears in Alaska, Montana, and Canada, I can attest that MOST of the things we hear about bears are wildly inaccurate. Polar bears, like all wild animals, are dangerous to a degree, but bears in general try to avoid conflict, and polar bears especially, because they need to conserve energy in the harsh arctic climate. Doug Peacock told me yesterday that he believes every time a person is charged by bear, it is the person’s fault. Whether or not this is true, human need to get our act together– we are the only species consciously and intentionally destroying our habitat and that of our fellow life forms. Polar bears may adapt to find other food sources, but the question is, will humans tolerate them? Over the past few years, we have seen polar bears moving inland and out of their normal range, seeking anthropogenic food sources, getting killed by people who will not tolerate them or are not accustomed to sharing their homes with polar bears. Ian Stirling says these are anecdotal incidents, but they are consistent with predictions associated with climate change. Human- polar bear conflicts since 1984 in Hudson Bay have spiked in years of less sea ice. Over the last few years in Churchill, MB, I have witnessed people baiting polar bears with dog food, dogs, and fryer grease to increase tourism profits with the least possible work. I have also seen helicopter tours harassing polar bears with cubs, chasing them as they fled. Now tell me, are humans sharing habitat with polar bears, as they have for thousands of years with minimal conflict, or are they invading polar bear habitat, now that there is money to be made? The polar bear as a poster child for climate change does not look at the entire picture, but if it gets people’s attention and wins their sympathies, that is good enough for me.

  12. Thank you Shannon, someone to make sense of it all, I’m off now to wring my proverbial white middle class hands about something else I know nothing about, shame on me for caring!?!

  13. I just heard Richard Ellis on my local NPR program discussing Polar Bear with much passion that is lacking when anyone else is interviewed..I think we need more talk like this NP Tulsa interview w Rich Fischer.I hope to make copies and distribute!!I had gone out to stand on the corner w my Polar Bear suit..I am going back out now.I am going town to town..

  14. I forget to add that Richard Ellis was being interviewed to discuss his new book”On Thin Ice:The Changing World of the Polar Bear”

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