Polar Bears: Our ambivalent attitude toward wildlife

The sub-title of Jon Mooallem’s Wild Ones is A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America. His chapters about polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba fit that description perfectly. The story is both disturbing and reassuring. It is disturbing because there can be no happy ending for these polar bears, but we are reassured to learn that other polar bear populations far north of Churchill are probably in better shape.

Polar bear.  Creative Commons
Polar bear. Creative Commons

Churchill, Manitoba is on the shore of Hudson Bay. It is the only place in the Arctic where polar bears are easily seen because it was a Cold War military installation with an airport and facilities to accommodate visitors. The photographs we have seen of polar bears were undoubtedly taken there by the hordes of tourists, conservationists, photographers, media that come to Churchill to witness the most photogenic illustration of the consequences of climate change.

There were about 950 polar bears in the Churchill area when Mooallem visited in 2010. In 20 years, the bear population in Churchill had declined by about 20%. Churchill is at the southern edge of polar bear range. Eighteen distinct populations of polar bears live north of Churchill. Needless to say, Churchill is warmer than those northern locations and for that reason it is experiencing warmer winters.

Polar bears hunt for seals by finding their breathing holes in the ice on Hudson Bay. When the seal emerges for air, the polar bear snatches it, making a meal of the fatty layer that insulates the seal from the icy water. As winter temperatures rise, the length of time the Hudson Bay is frozen becomes shorter. Although polar bears may find “snacks” such as geese during the long thaw, they are essentially without food until the Hudson Bay freezes again.

Polar bear cubs are typically nursed by their mothers for 2-1/2 years.  USFWS
Polar bear cubs are typically nursed by their mothers for 2-1/2 years. USFWS

As the thaw gets longer and the freeze shorter, polar bears are starving to death in Churchill.  Mooallem describes grim scenes of gaunt bears engaging in cannibalism and cubs in their death throes. But Mooallem wants his readers to think more deeply about the bears, beyond the horrible spectacle of their suffering in Churchill. He wants us to know why there is so little we can do to help the bears and he asks us to think about our ambivalent attitude toward wildlife.

Legal mechanisms for addressing climate change

Our political system is incapable of addressing climate change by regulating greenhouse gas emissions. In the absence of any substantive federal effort, the Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) tried to parlay the Endangered Species Act into a tool to address climate change. They applied for endangered status for polar bears which would have legally obligated the government to provide the habitat necessary for their survival. Since global warming is the primary threat to the bears, ensuring their survival would theoretically require us to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that cause global warming.

This seemed a worthy effort at the time. Watching that attempt play out in a series of legal battles was another opportunity to understand the weaknesses of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The response of US Fish & Wildlife Service (USFWS) was to designate polar bears as “threatened.” This status enabled USFWS to invoke an amendment that applies only to a particular species. That amendment was that USFWS is not required to address the underlying threat to the bears: climate change.

Since this loophole is not available for species listed as “endangered,” the response of CBD was to engage in a protracted battle about the definition of “threatened” and “endangered.” This arcane dialogue between CBD and USFWS revealed that there is no clear-cut definition of these categories in the ESA or its administration. This is one of many ambiguities in the ESA, as we have reported earlier on Million Trees.

Why can’t we help the bears?

Although there is no doubt that our political system is presently dysfunctional, our apparent inability to address the underlying causes of climate change is also a reflection of the wishes of the public. You might think that the residents of Churchill, surrounded by this living evidence of the consequences of global warming, would be actively engaged in the effort to address the causes of climate change. You would be mistaken. Although the residents of Churchill agree that the climate is warming, according to Mooallem they see it as a natural phenomenon, a cycle for which humans are not responsible and are powerless to change. Since it is a “natural” phenomenon, they also assume that the bears will survive in the long run.

Mooallem reminds us that the attitude of the residents of Churchill is the prevailing opinion of the American public. He doesn’t presume to explain the attitude of the residents of Churchill, but we will speculate. They are subjected on a daily basis to the sad spectacle of starving bears. Since it is illegal to feed the bears, there is nothing they can do about it. Putting ourselves in their shoes, it seems that one way to cope with that barrage of grim reality would be to slip into the unreal world of belief that you are not responsible for the suffering of the bears. Ironically, proximity to the bears has resulted in an apathetic attitude toward their plight.

Our ambivalent attitude toward wildlife

It may be difficult for us to understand the apathy of the residents of Churchill toward the fate of the bears because we are not witnesses to the suffering of the bears nor to the potential for the bears to become dangerous as they try to find food to survive. So, Mooallem tries to help us understand our attitude toward wildlife by putting it into a historical context: “There is a purely cultural dimension to the way we think about wild animals; their meanings can shift and float in and out of fashion over times…the stories we tell about animals depend on the times and places in which we tell them.” (1)

As American settlers moved west they had many dangerous encounters with wildlife such as bears and wolves. During this phase of American history, fear was the prevailing attitude toward such predators. Large carnivores were demonized and systematically exterminated by both land owners and government employees hired expressly for that task.

As urban populations grew, relative to rural populations, there was a growing tendency to romanticize wildlife amongst those not threatened by wildlife. Mooallem illustrates this turning point in the attitude of Americans toward wildlife with a specific incident that occurred in 1902.

Teddy bear.  Creative Commons
Teddy bear. Creative Commons

Teddy Roosevelt was president at the time and hunting was one of his favorite pastimes. He went bear hunting in Mississippi to hunt bears in the company of a famous bear hunter who was said to have killed three thousand bears. The bear hunter tracked down a bear and roped it to a tree so that Roosevelt could shoot it. Roosevelt declined to shoot the bear because it didn’t seem sporting to him, but he instructed his companions to kill the bear with a knife, perhaps because the bear was in terrible shape at that point. Roosevelt always enjoyed an excellent relationship with the media, which is perhaps why the reporters following this expedition chose not to mention the ultimate death of the bear in their reporting of this incident.

The media coverage of Roosevelt’s merciful sparing of the bear sparked the birth of the beloved teddy bear. Two companies made cuddly replicas of the bear to commemorate this event and ever after the teddy bear has been America’s favorite stuffed animal for children. That was the turning point for bears to make the transition from enemy to friend.

However, that attitude could easily flip back and Mooallem provides an example: “No single piece of research demonstrates this cycle of fear and reverence more clearly than a study…that examined how cougars were written about in the Los Angeles Times between 1985 and 1995.” By 1970 cougars had been nearly exterminated in the Los Angeles area. The cougar population began to rebound as a result of a hunting ban in 1990. During the intervening period, cougars were portrayed by the media as “majestic” and “innocent.” After just two fatal attacks, media coverage shifted to describe cougars as “efficient four-legged killers.”

Food for thought

Ultimately, human attitudes toward wildlife are self-serving. In the case of the polar bears of Churchill, the bears derive no benefit from the prevailing sympathetic human sentiment about them. Thousands of tourists have flocked to Churchill to see them, using untold quantities of fossil fuels to get there by air and to roam around on the tundra in buses to see the bears. The greenhouse gas emissions have provided entertainment for humans and a livelihood for the residents of Churchill, but they exacerbate climate change which will ultimately kill the bears of Churchill.

Jon Mooallem has given us a feast of food for thought. Thank you, Mr. Mooallem.


(1) Jon Mooallem, Wild Ones, A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America, Penguin Press, 2013.

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