Friday, January 25, 2013

Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye, by Zac Unger

Polar bears are unquestionably beautiful and awe-inspiring.  We love to put them on Christmas decorations watch them drink Coke on TV.  They are quite photogenic; movies like Arctic Tale (which Unger hilariously described as "a wretched pseudo-documentary about a polar bear family, narrated by the noted Arctic researcher Queen Latifah") and countless TV shows draw us in, sometimes even reminding us that they are deadly meat eaters.  Most of us will never get closer to a polar bear than seeing one on the screen or maybe in a zoo.  A lucky few of us will pay for a trip to Churchill, Manitoba, to spend time in Spartan conditions in this Canadian wilderness outpost for the chance to see these majestic animals up close.  Zac Unger took his polar bear curiosity a step further, moving his whole family from California to Churchill for several months.

With his first-hand accounts of life in polar bear country, reflections on the state of polar bear research, and a good dose of his wit and cute family stories, Unger's Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic's Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth, and Mini-Marshmallows is an entertaining and informative read.  As a committed environmentalist, Unger bought the story that the polar bears are dying and that unless we do something about global warming, they will be extinct, and soon.  What he found is that the story is not so simple.

As a scientist named Rocky, who has lived and conducted research in polar bear country for decades, tells Unger, climate change does not necessarily lead to extinction.  We can't predict what the effect of their environment changing will be.  "It's the height of hubris to say with certainty that polar bears are an evolutionary dead end and that they can't adapt."  Unger remains an environmentalist, but he objects to  misleading, alarmist tactics in the name of environmentalism.  In spite of what we hear from Queen Latifah, Al Gore, and countless celebrities wanting to attach themselves to a trendy cause, "there are about 25,000 polar bears alive today, as compared to the 5,000 bears that roamed the earth in 1973."  Unger is probably too "green" for some, not green enough for others; he just tells it like he sees it.

The most entertaining part of the book is his stories of life in the Arctic.  A portion of his time is spent with Rocky and his colleagues searching out and cataloging polar bear poop.  It's not as exciting as shooting bears with tranquilizer darts and tattooing their gums, but more effective and produces more accurate population estimates.  As he acclimates to life in Churchill, he observes that "in the Arctic, everything is more difficult than it seems, and infinitely less profitable," and just about every story he tells confirms it.

Perhaps Unger's goal, in part is to discourage the polar bear tourism to Churchill.  Of the tour companies who take tourists out in the oversized tundra buggies to view the polar bears, "there's no choice but to pick one of the two [government approved] companies and let it rummage around in your wallet."  On the buggy itself, amenities are sparse, uncomfortable, and cold.  And when you see the bears, you realize that "actual bear watching was a poor substitute for watching  a show about bears on television.  Out here, there was nobody to edit out the slow parts.  And at the time of year, a bear's whole goal in life is to be as slow as possible."

If you have an interest in polar bears, or just love a fun travelogue/nature journal, pick up Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye.  Among other things, you'll learn, as Unger's young son did, the many things that are different about Churchill.  Among other things, he observes, "What's different is that you wake me up in the middle of the night and we go outside in the snow in our pajamas and there are bears in the backyard."  Yes, Churchill is different.

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