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From dangerous predator to beloved Arctic icon: 2 books show shifting perception of polar bears

  • Author: David James
    | Alaska books
  • Updated: May 9
  • Published May 9

Polar Bear

Margery Fee, Reaktion Books/The University of Chicago Press, 224 pages, 2019, $19.95

Polar Bears: A Life Under Threat

Michael Rawicki, ACC Art Books, 240 pages, 2019, $45

’Polar Bear, ’ by Margery Fee

No animal is more iconic today than the polar bear. A creature of the arctic sea ice, it has become the symbol of a warming planet. Threatened, yet not endangered, it’s a visually cuddly creature whose primary habitat is melting beneath it. Humans across the planet have embraced polar bears, even if they don’t fully understand them. And their plight, brought about by our modern lifestyle, causes us understandable guilt.

Outside of the Arctic, humans have rarely understood polar bears. But we have repeatedly projected our own ever-shifting values onto them. This is one of the messages driven home by Margery Fee’s “Polar Bear,” a historical, cultural and biological meditation on a majestic animal whose fate is entwined with humanity’s.

Part of the ongoing “Animal” series published by England’s Reaktion Books, “Polar Bear” combines art, photography, and words to explore the role these animals play in the world we inhabit. Fee is neither biologist nor sociologist, but rather, professor emeritus of English at the University of British Columbia, and she draws as much from literary texts as from historical documents and scientific studies. The result is a sometimes meandering but always engaging and deeply philosophical discussion of an animal she sees as immeasurably valuable but widely misunderstood.

Fee approaches her topic through our historical relationship with it in order to get under the surface of our emotional and intellectual connections. Polar bears first diverged from brown bears around 400,000 years ago for reasons that researchers continue to debate. They adapted to a biological niche — the Arctic Ocean — that brown bears could not draw sustenance from. And while polar bears can and do hunt on land — a point raised by those who seek to downplay the threats they face — they are marine creatures. They evolved to hunt marine life.

Polar bears were first encountered by the original human inhabitants of the Arctic, and Fee is in part focused on conveying her belief that we cannot know these animals without grasping the observations and understandings of them that indigenous peoples have developed over centuries of interaction. In their arctic homeland the bears were hunted, eaten and used for furs, while at the same time playing a key role in spiritual cosmologies, often being viewed as close relatives of humans.

For Europeans, knowledge of polar bears came slowly. There’s evidence that live polar bears were trapped and transported to Ancient Egypt and Rome, among other places, at least two millennia ago. It’s certainly a fact that in medieval Europe they were kept in royal menageries, often deployed into rings to fight other animals for the entertainment of their owners. In subsequent centuries they found their way into circuses and zoos, where again their purpose was human amusement.

During the Age of Exploration, when conquering the Arctic became an obsession for England in particular, the polar bear became the symbol of death in a region where countless lives were extinguished in futile quests to find riches and waterways that weren’t there. The bears’ perceived power over human endeavors is perhaps best captured in Edwin Henry Landseer’s famous 1864 painting “Man Proposes, God Disposes," which depicts polar bears feasting upon the human remains of the lost Franklin Expedition (that those remains were in truth feasted upon by the last survivors was by then known in Europe, but not acknowledged in polite society).

In the 20th century, polar bears became advertising images and sports team and business mascots, as well as stuffed children’s toys, paving the way for a perception that has gone from being seen as a predator of man (they rarely are) to a huggable victim of a planet in crisis (don’t hug one; just don’t). For Fee, neither viewpoint is accurate, nor is either particularly helpful.

What Fee alludes to numerous times, and rolls back to late in her book, is that our Western understanding of polar bears is based on science, media, business interests (both extractive ones that threaten habitat and ecotourism ones that increase human traffic in those territories). Often missing, she reminds us, are the views of those who live in the Arctic, indigenous peoples on three continents whose own objectives are not always aligned with either industrial interests or environmental groups, both of which often still view the Arctic as an empty resource.

In debates over development versus preservation, Fee writes, “Circumpolar peoples would like a voice in these discussions, which risk ignoring their interests today as much as in the heyday of imperialism.” For Fee, humans are as much a part of the polar bear’s world as polar bears are a part of ours.

“Polar Bear” is richly illustrated with archival and modern day images, packed with scientific and historic facts, and driven by Fee’s forceful views, which skirt the mainstream and offer a different perspective. To turn from her book to the French photographer Michael Rawicki’s “Polar Bears: A Life Under Threat,” then, is to approach a gorgeous coffee table book from an angle that might otherwise be missed.

’Polar Bears: A Life Under Threat, ’ by Michael Rawicki

Rawicki, who founded the StockImage photo agency, is a gifted artist who offers some 200 images of polar bears taken over many years. Pictures abound of the bears at play, in family groupings, wandering through spectacular land- and seascapes, and more. Also found are other animals that share their space. Yet the human element that Fee finds so important is nearly missing here. And when it appears, it’s fairly benign. And not once does he present a blood-soaked bear feeding on a fresh kill. The photographs are uniformly cuddly, rendering the bears somewhat commoditized, and thus falling into the trap Fee warns against. It’s a wonderful book, but incomplete for these omissions.

Polar bears aren’t facing full extinction. At least, not at present. But they do face drastic reduction in numbers. What Rawicki reminds us is that they belong on Earth. What Fee reminds us is, so do we. What both seek is for the bear to thrive in its own right.

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