The loneliest polar bear has company in a warming world

The loneliest polar bear has company in a warming world
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The loneliest polar bear has company in a warming world

The loneliest polar bear has company in a warming world

In early November 2015, a polar bear cub named Nora was deserted by her mom on the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, leaving her destiny in the fingers of a group of veterinarians and zookeepers. The Loneliest Polar Bear: A True Story of Survival and Peril on the Fringe of a Warming World tells the story of the frantic effort to maintain Nora alive and effectively, from the struggles of replicating polar bear milk to an hours-long surgical procedure to repair a damaged bone in her leg.

However the e book, an growth of writer Kale Williams’ 2017 sequence about Nora for The Oregonian / OregonLive, goes past the lifetime of a single bear. It particulars the political battles over the existence of local weather change, debates concerning the ethics of zoos, and the already disastrous results of worldwide warming on native Alaskan villages.

GadgetClock spoke to Williams about pulling all of those items collectively, writing about native communities, and the difficulty of holding up one animal as a mascot for a complicated downside.

This interview has been calmly edited for size and readability.


There are a lot of very riveting and emotional moments packed into this e book. So my first query for you is, did you cry in any respect if you had been writing it?

Completely, on a couple of event. Would you like simply the writing half or the reporting half? Would you like journey frustrations or simply emotional destitution?

Inform me concerning the emotional destitution.

I feel most likely one of many hardest elements, this was really after the manuscript was completed, and we had been kind of in the modifying section and beginning fact-checks. However final 12 months, and this was laborious for plenty of causes different than simply the e book itself, however I had been studying a lot about local weather change and speaking to so many individuals who had been affected by it, after which the pandemic had hit. After which the wildfires in Oregon simply introduced this blanket of smoke into Portland that appeared to stay round endlessly. And that was actually, I feel, the low level for me as a result of it type of simply introduced dwelling all these totally different themes of, , there was a lot science denial happening across the pandemic, and it was simply so harking back to all of the stuff that I had kind of been studying about for the e book and that I researched and writing about. After which to have that with the smoke on high of it was actually simply, at a lot of occasions felt prefer it was an excessive amount of to bear.

The e book covers the historical past of polar bears and their habitats, the issue of elevating them in captivity, the historical past of local weather research, the precarity of native populations in Alaska — and that’s all inside the first 50 or so pages. So was it powerful to weave all these totally different threads collectively?

It was, however I assumed it was vital to take action as a result of I actually wished to position each people and polar bears in their current scenario by how we acquired right here, even on a geological timescale. We’ve all tailored to the world because it exists now, and we’ve been in a position to take action as a result of it has modified on a geologic tempo. However that’s not the case. Clearly, the adjustments that we’re seeing now are far more speedy. So these variations that we’ve been capable of do are usually not going to be sufficient for a lot longer. Because the tempo of change will increase, then we’re clearly going to wish to adapt extra rapidly, which shall be attainable for a few of us, these of us with means, however not attainable for others, who aren’t capable of escape wildfires in accommodations or ice storms in shelters, or for polar bears who don’t have the benefit of having the ability to depart their habitat.


Nora on the Oregon Zoo in 2017. Her father, Nanuq, was born close to Wales, Alaska, the place warming temperatures threaten the livelihoods of each polar bears and native individuals who rely upon seasonal ice sheets for searching.
Photograph by Dave Killen / The Oregonian

There’s kind of a “come for the lovable polar bear cub, keep for the local weather and indigenous justice” vibe to the e book. So are you hoping individuals shall be reeled in by Nora after which have bigger takeaways from it?

Yeah, it struck me that I used to be type of doing the identical factor that zoos do. You understand, the place clearly there’s a draw that most of these animals have, and you may kind of use that as a car for one more message, however I feel her story stays central to the e book.

However I feel, like I stated earlier than, I wished to have this extra context of how individuals who stay the place polar bears do have realized to exist in the identical kind of harsh local weather that appears inhospitable for these of us who stay farther south. And you may’t actually perceive the issues that they’re going through with out trying on the historical past of local weather science and the rise of local weather denial over the past 40 or 50 years.

So that is your first e book, your first time writing and being edited in such a massive format. Had been there any tales or fascinating details that didn’t make it into the e book?

Oh, man, there undoubtedly had been as a result of we lower most likely 25,000 phrases from the primary draft to the ultimate manuscript. I feel that possibly is likely one of the areas the place my editor helped probably the most was writing concerning the indigenous neighborhood up there. [Editor’s note: one of the main settings of the book is the village of Wales, Alaska.] I had a lot extra on their historical past in a number of the earlier drafts, together with this entire lengthy story concerning the first missionaries that went to Wales and the colleges that they arrange and the way one in all them ended up getting murdered by a couple of youngsters in the village, largely as a result of he was a supreme asshole to the entire those who lived there and handled all of them with nice disdain, was horribly racist, had no respect for any of their tradition or traditions.

That didn’t make it into the story. However I feel that’s most likely for the most effective. One of many issues that I’ve been attempting to pay shut consideration to is there’s a hashtag going round that was, I feel it was like “OwnStories,” the place individuals from these communities needs to be allowed to inform their very own tales. And it’s not likely my place to write down the whole unabridged historical past of the village as a result of there are many people who find themselves extra knowledgeable on that matter than I’m. And for me to return in as an outsider and attempt to inform that story, it’s most likely not my place.


An aerial view of Wales, Alaska, an Inupiat village.
Photograph by Dave Killen / The Oregonian

You speak about polar bears being a actually sophisticated mascot for local weather change and likewise the trickiness of attempting to determine if an animal is glad. However there are additionally a lot of anecdotes about Nora’s caretakers connecting in a actually emotional approach together with her. Do you suppose there are issues that include ascribing human traits and emotions to animals?

I do, yeah. You understand, clearly, anthropomorphizing has its drawbacks. I imply, we are able to challenge issues onto animals that it’s inconceivable to know whether or not they’re really experiencing. However I do suppose that there are many methods to know whether or not an animal is doing effectively or not doing effectively.

There are risks to ascribing human feelings to animals. However I feel it’s additionally harmful to think about them as, , massive baggage of meat that don’t have any kind of emotion in any respect. I don’t suppose it’s attainable for us to essentially perceive how they expertise that emotion. However I feel it could be harmful to suppose that they haven’t any feelings in any way as a result of then you might be free to not care how effectively they’re doing. And you may deal with them nevertheless you need. And I don’t suppose that’s proper, both.

I’ll be sincere, after I appeared on the cowl of the e book, I felt a little like, “Oh man, right here we go” as a result of after I was a child, I undoubtedly grew up in the period the place it felt like every single day at college, individuals had been saying, “We’ve to avoid wasting the polar bears,” to the purpose at which polar bears grew to become kind of an empty signifier and simply barely have any which means anymore. Do you’re feeling like by way of the method of penning this e book, your emotions concerning the polar bear as a mascot or about conservation efforts or how we speak about local weather change, did they alter all through the writing of this e book?

I don’t know in the event that they modified, however I definitely grew to become extra conscious of the issues of getting any kind of poster baby or figurehead or mascot for a downside that’s as complicated and multifaceted as local weather change. I imply, anytime you simplify one thing as massive because the local weather disaster into “We have to save the polar bears,” one thing goes to be misplaced.

There are 19 populations which are across the Arctic. And a few of them are definitely declining, others are secure, some are rising, others they do not know about. Once you put the polar bear up there as “We have to save this animal,” when, in reality, a few of these populations are rising, then individuals who wish to argue in dangerous religion can come again and say, “What do you imply we have to save the polar bears? We’ve acquired populations which are trending upwards. For this reason all of local weather science is pretend.”

When you’ve gotten one mascot on the high of your flag, and all people is meant to rally round, it offers alternatives for individuals like that to return in and kind of cherry-pick and dismiss your entire argument. That being stated, , if the polar bear is what it takes to encourage motion in any person, then I don’t actually see the hurt in that. It’s simply a matter of attempting to weigh these two issues towards one another.

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