Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon

Michael Engelhard University of Washington Press (2016) 304 pages, 160 illustrations ($29.95)

ice-bear-coverReview by Casey Bush, Senior Editor, The Bear Deluxe Magazine

During the mid-70s I lived for a year in Northern Michigan, and that’s where I faced my first polar bear. Of course it was taxidermied and on display with many other animals in the Fred Bear Museum. Grayling was the home of Bear Archery which popularized compound bows.  Fred spent his life traveling the world, killing large animals with a bow and arrow, and bringing them back for display in his hometown. Since then, I’ve seen live specimens in zoos and just a few weeks ago Portland’s famed resident Tasul died of cancer, at 32 years old. Tasul was reportedly the third oldest polar bear in North America, as most rarely make it to 18 years in the wild.  One of her keepers is quoted on the Zoo’s website as saying “She’s contributed so much to her species.” Tasul had lived at the Oregon Zoo since 1986 along with her twin brother Conrad who died last summer. Taking care of large wild animals is challenging and the twin bears are credited with several husbandry breakthroughs as their keepers were able to teach them to cooperate in drawing blood, brushing teeth and accepting eye drops without anesthesia, greatly simplifying routine medical care. The Zoo’s website went on to say, “Tasul touched a lot of people’s hearts…Wild polar bears are in trouble, and their future depends on all of us working together to combat climate change.” Good luck to the ice bear.

It is in the setting of concern about global warming that Michael Engelhard has provided us with a wonderful book that uses a charismatic carnivore to help us explore the place of humans on this planet. Engelhard has no illusions about the natural world and makes it clear that polar bears are not cuddly and will eat anything, although they prefer seals which they kill by first crushing their skulls. While not very social, the ice bear will occasionally share a kill with others of their kind and have been seen to feed in large numbers on dead whales. They are also known to eat each other and their young.  Although uncommon,  polar bears have eaten a few humans, while on the other hand, Engelhard includes a chapter entitled “Taste of the Wild” which provides culinary reviews, both good and bad, of different cuts of the bear, and warns that the liver is toxic.

Beyond these brutal facts, Engelhard’s book concentrates on how humans perceive polar bears and how they have affected human cultures.  Like humans it is a plantigrade walker, placing its entire sole on the ground, so that its footprints resemble barefoot human tracks. Native peoples have feared and revered polar bears, mythologizing the bear and casting human qualities onto the animal, including the widespread belief that they are left-handed. Like wolves, polar bears are seen by native peoples as shapeshifters, at times turning into humans and at times mating with humans. Native people’s respect of the polar bear extends to the afterlife and includes feeding reindeer meat to the dead head of a bear and smearing blubber inside its mouth to please the bear’s spirit. Gifts are offered to dead bears so that when other bears hear of the good treatment they  might return to the hunter. In Greenland, polar bears populate the night sky, the Pleiades are a pack of dogs which have cornered a polar bear, while the belt of Orion is seen as three hunters pursuing a polar bear.

Engelhard chronicles modern culture’s fascination with polar bears including a chapter on the cult of Knut, born in 2006, who lived in the Berlin Zoo for only five years but experienced widespread fame. Polar bears have historically been featured in circus acts trained to perform tricks and presented in culturally insensitive exhibits with “Laplanders”, “Eskimos” and other denizens of the far north. Hollywood famously displayed platinum blonds on polar bear rugs while Coca Cola has used the white bear as a marketing tool since the 1920s. Engelhard draws his narrative from a wide range of sources including well known naturalists, obscure Nordic historians, newspapers and magazines, as well as a slew of writers from Herman Melville to Shel Silverstein.

Like Fred Bear, generations of hunters sought out polar bears as prized trophies until the 1970s when international law largely prohibited that practice. In 1961 Arthur Dubs, from Medford, Oregon, is credited with killing one of the largest polar bears, which stood to a height of eleven feet. It was all about bragging rights as Engelhard reports: “True or not, the narrative accompanying any trophy is appropriately heroic.  A Life magazine article described how Dubs spotted the bear while flying out of the Chukchi Sea village Kotzebue and “bagged it” just inside the Russian line between Big and Little Diomede Islands, “under the nose of Russian jet fighter patrols.”  Today, bagging bears has been replaced by a tourist industry intent upon getting close enough to photograph the animals but as Engelhard quotes Barry Lopez about his experience approaching a bear in Arctic Dreams, “Our presence was interference.”  Today, humans overwhelm the Earth and are driving many other species towards extinction, especially those meat eating mammals with which we most closely identify. Engelhard’s book is a fun read but makes us acutely aware that there are only 20,000 polar bears remaining on this Earth and unlike coyotes and crows the ice bear cannot adapt to urban areas and is dependent on a unique environment that is quickly melting.


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