Perishing Polar Bears

Recently, I managed to watch a movie–all by myself!–at home on our main TV. That means I beat out my sports-loving husband and my cartoon-addicted child. This rarely happens.

As I scrolled through the “On Demand” options, I came across the 2014 film The Giver, based on the 1993 novel by Lois Lowry. I had heard about the book from several students over the years, so I settled in to watch it. Overall, I enjoyed it–especially the use (and absence) of color, but there was one moment in the film that really stuck with me. While explaining the past to the new Receiver of Memories, the Giver mentions that there once were other animals (and the film cuts to a scene of a rabbit in search of food). Unfortunately, the film did not go into much detail in terms of what led to the present absence of non-human animals (at one point, some characters present a blue elephant toy as a hippopotamus, commenting that it was extra fast because it had five legs!); however, the implication is clear–the rest of the animal kingdom died out as a result of human actions. In the meanwhile, the community enjoys fruit such as apples and walks through impeccably manicured lawns. In one transmitted memory, the receiver experiences being stung by a bee, and his reaction to the experience suggests that in addition to never having felt pain before, the receiver has also never seen a bee.

But is such a scenario possible? That is, I have no doubt that humanity is capable of decimating non-animal populations–especially at the rate we’re going–rather, could humanity survive if there were no other animal species on the planet? After all, we rely on so many creatures–directly and indirectly. Large predators help keep smaller species in check, which can help overgrazing on plants–the wolves in Yellowstone National Park are a great illustration of this. Birds and reptiles help to maintain insect populations, which in turn are vital to pollination and the aeration of soil, among other things. No bees, for example, should mean that the apples in The Giver should not exist (unless, of course, their technology has advanced to  allow them to cross-pollinate plants without the aid of insects). And of course, several species make up significant portions of the human diet.

Two days after I watched The Giver, this image by German photographer Kerstin Langenberger began making the rounds on social media today. I can’t get it out of my mind.

Langenberger wrote on her Facebook account that

I realized that the fat bears are nearly exclusively males which stay on the pack ice all year long. The females, on the other hand, which den on land to give birth to their young, are often slim. With the pack ice retreating further and further north every year, they tend to be stuck on land where there’s not much food.

While I’ve never seen a polar bear in the wild, I’ve seen them at the Denver zoo (and of course through film and photographs), and one of my initial thoughts upon seeing Langenberger’s photo was disbelief–that emaciated creature surely could not be a polar bear. Are we moving towards the complete destruction of multiple species, or is there still time to halt–and hopefully reverse–these troubling declines?

Naturally, the experts are divided. A recent article (2015) in The Huffington Post quotes Ian Stirling, a polar bear researcher and adjunct professor at the University of Alberta, who cautions against leaping too quickly to the conclusion that the polar bear photographed by Langenberger is typical of all polar bears:

people should be careful about blaming climate change for the bear’s condition. He said the bear was more likely old, sick or hurt — not starving because of a lack of prey or ice.

In a later Q&A, Langenberger expanded on the context in which she took the photograph:

In the past four years I’ve seen about one extremely skinny bear a year, and every summer I see about 60-70 bears. So it is an unusual sight, yet normal. This was the most extreme sight, though, as it was so extremely powerful visually, with the bear being on a melting ice floe. Usually, the starving animals were on land. This one was close to land but on one of the last ice floes to be found.

Turns out that this particular bear had been wounded (Langenberger speculates that the bear was injured by a walrus), so Stirling’s reading of the photograph is correct–to an extent. The animal is wounded, but is the emaciation a result of the wound, or did the wound result because the bear, driven by great hunger, possibly engaged another large animal (which is what Langenberger suggests) in a conflict over food resources? Furthermore, according to a 2007 survey by the U.S. Geological Survey, “Future reduction of sea ice in the Arctic could result in a loss of 2/3 of the world’s polar bear population within 50 years” (source). And the science is clear, isn’t it, that the ice caps are disappearing at a rapid pace.


With all of our technology and scientific knowledge, can’t we do more to help the polar bear–and in the process, help the other animals in its habitat (and thus ourselves in the long run)? Will polar bears be relegated to survival only in zoos–or worse–in memory?

When I was a graduate student, I took a semester of Old Norse. One of the first texts that we translated was the early thirteenth-century Auðunar þáttr vestfirska, or “The story of Auðun of the Westfjords.” Briefly, the main character, Auðun, spends all of his money to purchase a polar bear from a Greenlandic hunter in order to present the animal as a gift to King Svein Ulfsson in Denmark.

While it might initially boggle the mind that a person could travel nearly three thousand miles with a polar bear in captivity during the Middle Ages, Auðun’s story is not as far-fetched as it might seem. William Ian Miller, in his translation of and commentary on Audun and the Polar Bear (Leiden: Brill, 2014), writes that

Other sources note on several occasions that polar bears were given as gifts by Icelanders to rulers in Europe. So when Isleif Gizurarson sailed to Europe in 1055 to be consecrated the first bishop of Iceland he brought with him a “white bear from Greenland and the animal was the greatest of treasures,” using the same word—görsemi—that Audun’s Story uses to describe its bear, and which Isleif gave to the emperor Henry III Conradsson. Gifts of polar bears are unusual enough to get noted, but nary a word about the logistics of transporting or provisioning them in any of the sources in which such a gift occurs. Bears, polar or otherwise, it should be noted, were not native to Iceland. When a white bear appeared, it was because it was shipped over from Greenland, or because it arrived on drift ice. . .  (17-18)

There is a moment in Auðunar þáttr when the bear, along with Auðun, is on the verge of starvation (Auðun has run out of money), but Auðun finds an investment partner of sorts and the bear is saved. But other than this brief incident, there is little commentary on the bear itself. The king is grateful for the gift (and another king is quite envious), but there’s no mention of the bear’s ferocity (or tameness), its size, its hunger, etc. The bear is simply an object used to gain the favor of a king.

I’d like to think that we’ve progressed a bit in our thinking to recognize that these creatures, along with our other neighbors on this crowded planet, are not here for our pleasure. Rather, we must work together, and in the case of humanity, for these creatures–particularly since we are the primary causes of their difficulties in finding suitable habitats and food resources.

How many of us fell in love with the polar bears featured in holiday advertisements for Coca-Cola? (You can find a brief summary of the evolution of the Coke bears in a 2014 New Yorker article here.) I can’t remember how old I was when I first saw them–but I still will pause whatever I’m doing and watch their onscreen antics.

I was happy to learn that as a result of the success of the polar bears, Coca-cola has partnered with the World Wildlife Fund in the last few years to try and preserve the Arctic.  I just hope these efforts are not too little, too late.

The world of The Giver has no appeal to me. Despite the overhanded use of the apple imagery to suggest a Garden of Eden, the lack of diversity does not lead to harmonious living. I’m reminded of the closing lines of the Anglo-Saxon poem The Wanderer:

Her bið feoh læne, her bið freond læne,
her bið mon læne, her bið mæg læne,
eal þis eorþan gesteal idel weorþeð!

As I discussed with my Old English students earlier this week, these lines open and close with the same words–symploce is the rhetorical term for this pattern–with the result that emphasis is placed on the transient and ever changing centers.  Roughly translated, the first line is “Here is treasure lent (or transitory, etc.) here is friend lent,” and the subsequent line continues the list of things that just do not last. The poem as a whole emphasizes the mutability of the mortal world and it has a strong Christian bent to it (as does most extant Anglo-Saxon poetry), but these lines always stand out to me, particularly the final line–all the earth shall become idel, “idle.” The absence of movement, the absence of variety, the absence of life. The absence of polar bears.