A polar bear story presents much more than the story of one bear

The Loneliest Polar Bear: A True Story of Survival and Peril on the Edge of a Warming World

By Kale Williams. Crown, 2021. 274 pages. $28

Kale Williams, a science and environment reporter for The Oregonian, began his polar bear journey in 2016 when a young polar bear cub named Nora arrived at the Portland zoo and became an instant celebrity. He traced Nora’s story back to a wild grandmother bear in Alaska and then through the young bear’s own triumphs and perils as a zoo bear. But he didn’t stop there. While the title “The Loneliest Bear” suggests a story of one solitary bear, his book expands outward into a host of related science and political topics including the effects of climate change on the northern environment and the role of zoos in conservation and education.

The book begins, “She weighed scarcely more than a pound, roughly the size of a squirrel.” The baby bear named Nora was born in 2015 in a cinder block den at the Columbus, Ohio, Zoo and Aquarium. On her sixth morning, her mother left the den, abandoning her. The early part of the narrative goes on to describe the takeover by the “Nora Moms,” zookeepers who fed and warmed and played with her, bringing her though a challenging infancy.

Alternate chapters, though, take readers back through time and across space, to Wales, Alaska in 1988, when hunter Gene Rex Agnaboogok fell through the dome of a polar bear den, landing on a mother bear that chased him back onto the ice. After Agnaboogok shot and killed her, he discovered two bear cubs in the den. The rescued cubs went to a zoo, where one of them later became the father of Nora.

In telling his story, Williams not only spent plenty of time in zoos and with zoo people but traveled three times to Wales, where he interviewed Agnaboogok and other residents, not only about the initiating event but about their knowledge of polar bears, sea ice, and the changing Arctic. He forays into a history of Wales, including its pre-contact way of life, its naming by Captain Cook, and the devastation by the flu epidemic of 1918-19, which killed half the population.

Williams also describes the work of polar bear researchers, including that of Alaskan Karyn Rode, wildlife biologist with the U. S. Geological Survey. One chapter describes darting and collaring Chukchi Sea polar bears, the science of determining polar bear populations and the health of individuals, and the increasing problem of conducting research on thin and broken ice.

The story returns periodically to Nora, who, just shy of her first birthday, was moved to the Portland zoo to be company for anther polar bear. Nora, raised by humans, may have thought she was one; at least she wasn’t accustomed to relating to another bear. She paced and threw “tantrums,” and was treated with multiple antidepressants, all the time thrilling her “fans.” After the other bear died, Nora was moved again, to a zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah. There, Nora eventually bonded with another similarly-aged bear but also broke a leg — her bones had been fragile since the beginning, a result of missed nutrients — and required complicated surgery.

Halfway through Williams asks, “At the heart of Nora’s story is a complicated question: Are zoos helping animals or hurting them?” His answer is a measured one, noting that many species, including polar bears, fare poorly in zoos, but also that being able to learn about animals in zoo settings can help people care about them and, theoretically, act to protect them and their habitats.

That is certainly the hope with polar bears, considered “poster animals” or ambassadors regarding global warming. This is a point that Williams makes repeatedly, by braiding through Nora’s story the larger one of a warming world. If we care about bears that rely on sea ice to live, he wants us to understand, we must care about what threatens them. And even if we care nothing about cute baby bears or the Arctic or the Indigenous people who live there, we must at least care about the hurricanes and wildfires that threaten people we know, and about future generations.

Some of the author’s digressions, into details of an Oregon fire, the former president’s rollback of environmental protections, and political action by young people fighting for a future, could seem like padding for a book about a zoo bear — but it does all connect. Within the section on youth activism, Williams tells of Esau Sinnok of Shishmaref, who as a teenager joined with other young Alaskans to sue the state, arguing that Alaska’s energy policy, which promotes fossil fuel development, violates their constitutional rights to a stable climate system. Sinnok vs. Alaska is still awaiting a decision from the Alaska Supreme Court.

Near the end, Williams makes his case straight-out: “Hunters killing fewer polar bears will not save them. Neither will the data collected by scientists like Karyn Rode. Every bear in every zoo could give blood and walk on a treadmill and polar bears would still face a grim future. The only thing that can save polar bears is a sea that stays frozen. And that can happen only if humans stop spewing heat-trapping gases into the sky.” Nora — presently back at the Oregon Zoo — as a charismatic individual “captured the hearts of thousands of people around the world, people who wanted something to root for. But what does it say about human beings that we’ve been unwilling or unable to find those characters to root for within our own species?”