Bear As Necessity

‘Circus Arts’, 1978 Stamps of the German Democratic Republic. Polar bear with trainer. / German public domain

Laura Nielsen for Frontier Scientists

Encountering a bear in a place still untrampled enough to be called ‘wild’ is an experience completely different than seeing a bear in a human-dominated locale. At least, I always thought so.

I’ve visited zoos and admired Black bears and Grizzlies, Polar bears sporting underwater, separated from me by inches of reinforced glass, and felt wowed. I’ve seen bears digging through garbage (like racoons in altogether too urbanized a place) and felt sad. My first time in Denali National Park, though, I saw bears in an utterly different light. A mother Grizzly pausing on a hill to sniff the air, trailed by her two trundly but also-cautious cubs. How amazing. A bear in a zoo is still a bear of course; somehow, a bear in a more natural habitat seems altogether enigmatic and complete. We are left to shoot pictures, knowing we’re capturing just a fragment of their lives.

Humans are fascinated by bears, enamored of them. They are powerful creatures and we admire power. Bears are a symbol of steadfast strength. Often, we try to capture this sense of them in our sports teams: the Bears, the Bruins. For those who’ve encountered these animals coexisting with our present-day society, I think bears can represent adaptability as well.

You can find bears in our mythos. In the constellations, Ursa Major and the Big Dipper are familiar features of the night sky. Polar bears embody the arctic; I’ve heard them called the ‘Spirit of the North’. Bears even play a role in politics, as represented in this comic featuring Theodore Roosevelt ‘Drawing the Line’ and refusing to shoot a bear which had been purposefully injured and bound to a tree for hunting sport. The incident inspired the name ‘Teddy Bears’. Those sewn critters are part of many of our childhoods. Teddy bears are plush counterparts to what bears are in the wild. Teddy bears can reflect love and compassion back on a child, and offer security. Something ferocious turned into a fluffy protector.

Political cartoon by Clifford Berryman, published in Washington Post 1902. Depiction of President Theodore Roosevelt’s bear hunting trip to Mississippi which gave the Teddy Bear its name. / U.S. public domain

Still, bears can be protectors. Smoky the Bear teaches us to prevent wildfires. And bears in childrens’ tales teach lessons: Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Winnie the Pooh, Yogi Bear, the Berenstein Bears. In novels, too, bears roam. In Hal Borland’s When the Legends Die (1963) a rescued bear cub serves as a guide on the road to self-identity, as an entity worthy of empathy and care. Bears serve incredibly versatile roles in many other books as actors and as metaphors, like in author John Irving’s books.

Irving’s The Hotel New Hampshire (1981) references another aspect of bears in human culture when it introduces a character named Freud, an entertainer who performs with his pet bear, State o’ Maine. Performing animals are a big part of the circus tradition. Ursari, animal trainers from among the Roma people, were among those who trained bears for circuses in Europe. People are enchanted by the distraction of the circus, and I think acts with bears performing feats entertained so many because humans like to see our behavior echoed in other species. We also like to feel endangered but be safe.

We should remember that humans are the ones endangering bears.

Real bears aren’t Teddy bears, fluffy protectors. They need our protection. It is hard to remember that something so wild and fierce and capable is so strongly affected by humans. Bears can coexist with us, they have a broad ecological niche, but really they need wild places. And when we do not preserve truly wild places which make good habitat, wild creatures suffer. Polar bears, for instance, are facing a wide variety of threats including habitat fragmentation and toxic chemicals, which you can read about on the WWF facts sheet here.

“Polar bears are already predicted to die out in a century,” (The Sunday Times, 2006). I think it’s safe to say that’s not what we want- for any bear species. I think we love the idea that is bears. We should also pay heed to their reality.

Bear kin in Denali National Park, Alaska, 1996. Grizzly with two cubs. / Image L. Nielsen for FrontierScientists

Beyond just the ecological concerns of biodiversity conservation, I think there are cultural concerns. We live in our cities and think we are urbanized- that we don’t need wild places. But it has been proposed that humans do… that wilderness is precious. And recognizing that humans are one part of the natural system is healthy and good. Aldo Leopold said: “We abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect,” (A Sand County Almanac, 1949).

He is right about community. We are ever more connected. Technology connects us. We can root wildly for the survival of orphaned Polar bear cub Qannik and follow her on the first legs of her new life at the Alaska Zoo, learn about her in the news as she recovers and heads to Louisville. Nature also connects us. We can travel and encounter bears in wild places. That means learning and practicing bear safety, so that we can share wild spaces with bears with more surety.

Strong and proud, capable, loveable, and fierce, a bear embodies many things for us. Bears need the wild, and so do humans. Though we are very different, I think that fellowship is one reason for our fascination with the animals. What do you think?

Frontier Scientists: presenting scientific discovery in the Arctic and beyond

To see how bears and humans interact at Denali, watch Frontier Scientists vodcast ‘Grizzlies: Preserving Bear & Visitor Experiences’ with wildlife biologist Pat Owen of Denali National Park and Preserve.

Project Grizzlies