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3 May 2017updated 08 May 2017 10:14am

The bears who came in from the cold

From respected fellow hunter to zoo sensation, polar bears have had a long journey in our imagination.

By Tim Flannery

According to the great Arctic explorer Adolf Nordenskiöld, when a polar bear sees a man, he “approaches in hope of prey, with supple movements, and in a hundred zigzag bends, in order to conceal the direction he intends to take, and thus keep his prey from being frightened”. The largest bears stand 12ft 8in or more tall. To see such a predator loping towards you, in a landscape that offers nowhere to hide, is the stuff of nightmares. Yet somehow, even eight thousand years ago, people were killing polar bears. Perhaps they hunted only the smaller females while they were in their dens. No doubt, on occasion, bears attacked human mothers in their igloos when the men were away hunting. But can you imagine digging down through the snow knowing that below you a great, snarling mother awaits, ready to protect her precious cubs with all her energy?

Michael Engelhard’s discipline is “anthrozoology”, a field that deals with ideas rather than biological relationships. He argues that no other creature has occupied so important and varied a position in the great realm of the human mind as has the polar bear. “My biggest surprise in researching this book has been the longevity of attitudes involving the polar bear . . . [It] is sometimes still a sexual predator or a ‘stud’; it still is protector, is killer, is idol . . .” he writes.

Those who inhabit the far north have, of necessity, found ways to calm human anxiety about coexisting with the great white bear. Boys are taught by experienced hunters that where the physical match is so uneven, the right attitude and preparation are the keys to success. After a successful hunt, the remains of the bear are treated with the greatest respect. “Don’t be offended,” the Chukchi hunter says to the dead bear, while the neighbouring Yupiit explain that they are only taking the bear’s muscle and fur, not killing it, for the soul of the beast lives on. Elsewhere, gifts are given to the skulls of slain bears – knives and harpoon heads to males, and needles and beads to females. No enterprise short of warfare is so hedged about with belief and legend as is polar bear hunting. In northern legends polar bears and people elide, with many stories of bears becoming human and people brought up by bears. For early visitors from southern lands, the great white bear could be a monstrous killer. But it was also a valuable commodity. That it is white somehow accentuates its special status to southerners, where most bears are black or brown.

Engelhard begins his beautifully illustrated book with the “superstar” Knut. Arguably the most famous polar bear of all time, Knut was born at Berlin zoo in 2006. His mother, Tosca, rejected her tiny offspring, who was nursed by the zookeeper Thomas Dörflein. Inevitably, the bear was given a human upbringing; Dörflein even sang lullabies and played the guitar to send him to sleep. The global media became obsessed with Knut, as did a group of campaigners who believed that the bear would have been better off if it had been left to die, rather than be raised by human beings. They even lobbied to have Knut castrated.

Aged four, Knut had his future resolved: the bear suffered a seizure and drowned, in front of an audience of hundreds. There was an outpouring of grief. When the zoo had his skin taxidermised, public outrage spiked and a spokesperson for the zoo was forced to explain: “It’s important to make clear that we haven’t had Knut stuffed.” But the difference between being stuffed and mounted is purely semantic.

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From respected fellow hunter to zoo sensation, polar bears have had a long journey in our imaginings. In the past, we have treated them as objects of entertainment and their body parts as commodities, but more recently they have become symbols of a world under threat from global warming. For the anthrozoologist, one of the richest exemplars of these animals’ growth in our minds is the performing bear. “The circus was from its beginning more honest than the zoo about its true nature as an artificial space set apart for the skilful manipulation of animals,” Engelhard explains.

Perhaps the best-known polar bear circus act of all time was the one devised by the diminutive Ursula Böttcher. She weighed 130lb and stood just over five feet tall, and had been a cleaning lady for Circus Busch in the GDR before she began her work with bears. The highlight of her performances was the Todeskuss or “Kiss of Death” – a gesture that took place in a steel cage, and involved an 11ft 6in monster of a bear taking a cube of sugar from Böttcher’s lips with its mouth. The moment, which combined sex, control and terror, enthralled audiences.

The stories of Tosca, Knut and Böttcher have been taken by Yoko Tawada as the provocation for her latest novel. Originally written in German, Memoirs of a Polar Bear is a surreal exploration of the bear and us. The first of its three chapters, “The Grandmother”, begins with reminiscences by a very young polar bear. “I lifted my rump to the sky and slid my head below my belly . . . Innocent, I opened my anus to the cosmos and felt it in my bowels,” she says. As the unnamed cub grows, she is taught to walk on her hind limbs by a trainer, who attaches spiked mittens to her forepaws to prevent her from placing them on the ground. The small creature learns to ride a bicycle, go to school and, as an adult, to attend academic conferences. She is still a bear, but a human-bear, and one obsessed with writing her account of herself. After producing a globally bestselling autobiography, and being treated badly by her publisher, she flees the GDR and, with the help of Western writers, settles in West Berlin.

Can such a hybrid character ever be convincing? In the novel, a West Berlin bookseller says of stories that have an animal subject: “In fact, the main character is never an animal. During the process by which an animal is transformed into a non-animal or a human into a non-human, memory gets lost, and it’s this loss that is the main character.” As the protagonist writes her autobiography, she discovers that: “My memory lived in my arm’s movement.” Yet what memories are evoked? Our bear-writer depends on senses such as scent, more than on sight. But beyond that she is as human as the reader. The chapter ends in a gear shift with a scene resembling a dream sequence, in which the bear migrates to Canada, marries and gives birth to a daughter, Tosca.

Chapter two views bear-human relations through a different lens. It begins with an intimate account, by a polar bear trainer named Barbara, of the Kiss of Death. In this version, however, it is not a huge male polar bear that takes the sugar from its trainer’s mouth, but the female Tosca. Working with large carnivores in the circus is unimaginable to most of us, and Tawada does a fabulous job of taking us into that world. Nothing is as it seems. The trainer’s whip, which we might think is used to subdue the “beasts”, is instead a cue: cease roaring when you hear it, and you will be rewarded. Of course the performance is impossible unless the trainer understands the animals perfectly. “The thoughts of animals were written clearly on their faces as if spelled out with an alphabet,” Barbara tells us.

The elision between Tosca and Barbara is explored in dreamlike sequences in which the pair communicate, their identities becoming partly fused. And the theme of biography continues. “I can’t write anything at all,” Tosca tells Barbara.

“Why not?” I asked.

“My mother has already described me as a character in her book.”

“Then I’ll write for you. I’ll write your life story so you can escape from your mother’s autobiography.”

Can collaboration possibly save both ­human being and animal from that loss of memory, to form a new kind of character?

The final chapter centres on a polar bear that has become human as a result of being brought up by people. Knut becomes an important creature in human eyes. He is a bear whose mere existence drives away the potentially fatal threat of climate change.

“If I had died, the greenhouse gases in the sky would have formed a giant, steel-hard layer that would have lowered itself upon the city like a lid on a pot, and then, what with the boiling steam, the temperature would have drastically risen . . .” Knut tells us. In a work that plays with the fantastical and allegorical, the polar bear ultimately becomes both the grandiose repository of human desires and a creature nestled among us, our own fur baby held to the heart. Knut’s salvation is our salvation: now where is the loss, and who has gained?

Tawada and Engelhard mine the same rich historical seam as they seek to understand the bears in our minds. It seems to me that the worlds of anthrozoology and ­fiction aren’t that far apart. 

Tim Flannery is a professorial fellow at the Melbourne Sustainable Society Institute, University of Melbourne. His books include “The Weather Makers: Our Changing Climate and What It Means for Life on Earth” (Penguin)

“Ice Bear: the Cultural History of an Arctic Icon” by Michael Engelhard is published by University of Washington Press

“Memoirs of a Polar Bear” by Yoko Tawada, translated by Susan Bernofsky, is published by Portobello Books

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This article appears in the 26 Apr 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On