During the Cold War, a joint U.S.-Canadian military installation was built outside the tiny northern town of Churchill, Manitoba, at the western edge of Hudson Bay. Those stationed at Fort Churchill had several jobs to do, like be ready to repulse the Soviets if they invaded over the North Pole and figure out how to lob nuclear warheads at Moscow through the Aurora Borealis, which was proving, mysteriously, to muck up the guidance systems on their rockets. A lot of the soldiers' time was also spent dealing with a nuisance: hundreds of polar bears that ambled across the tundra there every fall.
In November 1958, for example, one ate a pair of boots at the firing range. Another smashed a building's window, poked his head in, and had to be blasted with a fire extinguisher. At least twenty polar bears were loitering near the mess hall and the dump, and, late one Sunday night, three turned up at the central commissary. Soldiers in station wagons drove them back into the wilderness. One report noted, "The most effective, anti-dawdling weapon has been the small helicopter." Even so, occasionally the bears would rear up on their hind legs and try to tussle with the armored flying machines. One helicopter pilot described how unsettling it was to make a low pass and find "some six feet of indignant polar bear throwing haymakers" with paws the size of dinner plates. After a while, military contractors limited the amount of work done outside at night; the higher-ups decided it would just be easier to stay out of the polar bears' way. "So this is civilization," began one newspaper article about military wives at Fort Churchill.
By the time I arrived, one November a half-century later, the military was gone. The fort had been dismantled and carted off, though two massive, ruined radar domes still sat in the distance like some post-apocalyptic Epcot attraction. A dozen specially built vehicles called Tundra Buggies crawled along the network of dirt roads the military had built and abandoned. Each was stuffed with tourists, many of whom had paid several thousand dollars a head to fly to Churchill, now billing itself as "The Polar Bear Capital of the World." They were mostly older vacationers, taken out to the tundra every day to get a glimpse of the animals, then deposited back in town to prowl the gift shops along Churchill's main road, buying polar-bear caps and snow hats, polar-bear T-shirts, polar-bear aprons, polar-bear Christmas ornaments, polar-bear magnets, polar-bear boxer shorts, polar-bear light-switch plates, polar-bear wind chimes, polar-bear baby bibs, and pajamas that say "Bearly Awake."
A Tundra Buggy, if it resembles anything at all, resembles a double-wide school bus propped up on monster-truck tires. Three had pulled off the road to watch a lone polar bear splayed flat at the rim of a frozen pond, asleep in the willows. I was behind them in a scaled-down vehicle known as Buggy 1, one of the storied, original rigs of the fleet. Buggy 1 is now operated by a conservation group, Polar Bears International. One of the group's videographers was shooting footage of the bear through an open window while the other staff on board tried to sit perfectly still so as not to rattle his tripod. The cameraman had been filming the bear for a long time, in Super HD, hoping it would stand up or do something alluring. Up ahead, tourists filed onto the rear decks of their buggies, training their Telephoto lenses and little point-and-shoots at the animal. It lifted its head once or twice, but that was it. After a couple of minutes, I noticed that the tourists had turned ninety degrees and were photographing us, aboard Buggy 1, instead.
It was then that Martha Stewart's helicopter came into view. Everyone turned to watch it as it passed, flying low and very far ahead. Two hundred years ago, Arctic explorers described polar bears leaping out of the water and into boats, trying to "resolutely seize and devour" whichever dog or human being was sitting closest to their jaws, unprovoked and absolutely undeterred even if you tried to set the bear on fire. Now Martha Stewart had come to Churchill to shoot a special segment about the bears for her daytime television show on the Hallmark Channel.
Polar Bears International had been working in a loose partnership with Martha Stewart for many months in advance to handle logistics for her shoot. The group was trying to ensure that Martha told the right story about the animals. It isn't enough anymore to gush about how magnificent or cute polar bears are, as the many travel writers and television personalities that came to Churchill over the years had tended to. The stakes were too high now--too urgent. Climate change had put the bear in severe jeopardy. According to a 2007 study by U.S. government scientists, two-thirds of the world's polar bears are likely to be gone by the middle of this century. And, of course, that's only one of many dispiriting prognoses trickling into the news these days. Another recent study predicts that climate change may wipe out one of every ten plant and animal species on the planet during that same time. Another claims seven of every ten could be gone. Tropical birds, butterflies, flying squirrels, coral reefs, koalas--the new reality will rip away at all of them, and more. The projections range from bona fide tragedies to more niggling but genuinely disruptive bummers: tens of millions of people in Bangladesh are likely to be displaced by sea-level rise and flooding; the Forest Service warns of maple syrup shortages in America.
The polar bear, in other words, is an early indicator of all this other turmoil coming our way. It is, as everyone on Buggy 1 kept telling me, a "canary in the coal mine"--that was the phrase they used, always, with unrelenting discipline. The animal had become a symbol for some otherwise inexpressible pang--of guilt, of panic--that can burble into the back of your mind, or the pit of your stomach, when you think about the future of life on Earth. But, Polar Bears International was arguing, it could also be a mascot--a rallying point and call to action. At this point, bears are all but guaranteed to disappear from a lot of their range. But the science suggests that there's still time to slow climate change down and, in the long term, keep the species--and many others along with it--from vanishing entirely.
Practically speaking, this leaves conservationists like Polar Bears International in a unique and sometimes disorienting position. Unlike with other species, the central threat to polar bears isn't something that can be tackled or solved on the ground, out in the immediate ecosystem. The only meaningful way to save the polar bear now is to influence the energy policies and behavior of people who live thousands of miles away--which means, in part, influencing influential media personalities like Martha Stewart. At some point, polar bear conservation stopped being solely the work of biologists and wildlife managers and became the work of lawyers, lobbyists, and celebrities as well. The bear is dependent on the stories we tell about it.
After spending the fall in Churchill, Polar Bears International's president, Robert Buchanan, would head back home to the United States and start traveling from city to city, hosting talks by scientists and zookeepers, trying to use the appeal of this one charismatic animal to inspire people to reduce their own carbon footprints, however slightly--to drive less, to buy recycled goods. In Kansas City, PBI had partnered with the hardware chain Lowe's to get inner-city kids to weatherize their neighbors' homes, saving energy for heating and cooling. In suburban Connecticut, they'd cosponsored "Polar Bear Empathy Day," at which members of the local Polar Bear Club, in a reversal of their traditional cold-water swims, put on heavy parkas and stood on a scorching beach in July to show solidarity with the bears in an overheating Arctic. All together, Robert regarded these strategies and stunts as a kind of psychological guerrilla warfare. "Polar bears are in serious friggin' trouble," he told me that morning on Buggy 1. "But until you change the consumer's attitude, you're not going to change the policy or the political will." By "consumer," he presumably meant "citizen."
It was a marketing gambit, after all. And Robert, a big man who talks in a languorous growl, felt very comfortable relating to it on those terms. This was his retirement. In his thirty-five-year career, he'd risen to marketing director at Joseph E. Seagram & Sons, overseeing beverage and alcohol brands during the heyday of the corporation, when it owned Universal Studios and a large share of the music industry and was producing flashy wine-cooler commercials starring a young Bruce Willis. Robert handled cognacs and whiskey and Tropicana orange juice. "I take products to market," he said. "I'm a marketer." Now he'd put himself on the polar bear account.
Robert was literally trying to control the image of the polar bear in Churchill before that image was broadcast around the world. Churchill turns out to be the best, most convenient place in the world to see or film polar bears in the wild. (When you see a wild polar bear on TV or the Internet, the chances are good that you're looking at a Churchill bear.) Because Polar Bears International operates in close partnership with a tour company in Churchill that owns the majority of the permits and vehicles needed to access the animals on the tundra, the group has been able to intercept most of the major media that come through town. They install biologists and climatologists on the reporters' buggies like scientific press agents, trying to make sure an accurate narrative comes across, and they provide B-roll footage of bears plunging into melting slush to help newscasters illustrate the problem. In past years, though, PBI had gone out of its way to help television crews only to feel betrayed by the finished product: the reporters ignore climate change altogether, or regurgitate the junk theories of climate change deniers. Most television crews are now asked to sign memorandums of understanding, outlining certain guidelines, before working with PBI. (As a rule, one PBI staffer told me, Robert regards all journalists as "pirates and thieves.") But that fall, Martha Stewart hadn't signed one. And in the days before her arrival, her producers had become a little incommunicative about their plans. We'd all headed out on Buggy 1 that morning because PBI had initially hoped to tour the tundra alongside Martha and her crew, docking back to back with Martha's buggy to pass people back and forth periodically for interviews. But that was starting to feel unlikely now. Though no one was quite saying it, there seemed to be concern that Martha Stewart was going rogue.
Everyone on Buggy 1 sat around for quite a while, not speaking much, while the cameraman stayed locked optimistically on the bear lumped in the mud outside, trying to gather whatever stock footage he could. Eventually, the polar bear got up and walked away. The cameraman shrugged.
We drove on. We looked for more bears. People noodled on their laptops and iPads. It felt aimless. Then, sometime after lunch, a voice crackled over the radio. It sounded like we would finally rendezvous with the Martha Stewart people and do a little filming on Buggy 1. A PBI employee started wiping down the vehicle's counters with wet wipes. She hung everyone's parkas on coat hooks in the back. But when we got closer, we saw Martha's buggy receding in our windshield, fairly rapidly. "Oh, they're moving now," our driver groaned.
All day, a strange paparazzi-like triangle had been materializing: Martha wanted good access to polar bears, and PBI wanted good access to Martha. I wanted to watch the whole process of brokering access, since I was quickly understanding that the media relations dimension of polar bear conservation was a critical part--maybe the most critical part--of the preservation of this five-million-year-old species.
Our driver pushed Buggy 1 as fast as it would go, which wasn't very fast, trying to gain ground. Something that I'd kind of suspected for hours was suddenly obvious: we were chasing Martha Stewart across the tundra.
* * *
All of this was happening at the end of 2010, when it was getting easy to wonder how potent a symbol the polar bear even was anymore. A few years earlier, the bear had helped install climate change as the central issue of American environmentalism; now, congressmen were once again openly dismissing the idea of climate change as comical, while thrashing bills to limit greenhouse gases. Even just last week, as the concentration of carbon in the atmosphere came within a couple of decimal places of hitting the 400ppm mark, a survey released by the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication showed that half of Americans still don't believe humans are causing changes to the climate, and that the percentage who believe that the climate is changing at all has actually dropped seven percent since last fall--probably, the researchers noted, because they had conducted their survey after a month of unusually cold weather. One day after my trip to Churchill, when I took my daughter to the California Academy of Sciences back home in San Francisco, I noticed that the museum was scrapping its exhibit about disappearing glaciers and polar bears. It had proved unpopular and was mostly ignored, and was being replaced with an exhibit about the worsening droughts, forest fires, and floods that climate change would bring to California. The new message, a museum director told me, was "Never mind the polar bears. Concentrate on how bad it's going to be for you."
Clearly, the polar bear had jumped the shark. Part of the problem was that the symbolism of the bear had become so ingrained, so legible, that it was getting overexposed. Polar bears were everywhere now, receding back into the pop cultural noise which environmentalists had originally used them to cut through. There was "Floe the Polar Bear," the mascot for a natural gas company, and the "Time to Care" limited-edition gunmetal polar bear wristwatch. A television commercial introducing Nissan's plug-in electric car, the Leaf, showed a polar bear being forced off his shrinking ice floe and walking sullenly through forests, along busy highways, and all the way into an unnamed city, where he found a commuter getting into a Leaf and gave the man a long, almost pitiable hug. The hug goes on so long that you start to realize the bear is doing more than just saying thank you--he's absolving the man, and maybe also just needs to lean on the guy out of sheer exhaustion.
The predicament of actual polar bears, meanwhile, seemed only to be getting worse. Projections that sounded like sad science fiction scenarios when laid out years ago in scientific papers were being observed around Churchill more frequently. Polar bear cannibalism, for example. The previous autumn, a hungry male bear was seen killing and eating a polar bear cub after separating it from its mother. I saw a photo of the cub's severed head hung sideways from a long bolt of fur in the larger bear's mouth; the male faced away, but the cub's dead face looked straight into the camera, its fur stained salmon pink with blood and snow. This was one of several photos of the cannibalism incident floating around. The whole thing happened in front of a Tundra Buggy full of tourists with cameras.
Biologists also believe that more cubs will be abandoned around Churchill in the coming years, as mothers either become too malnourished to nurse their young and leave them, or simply drop dead of starvation. And so the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg was putting the finishing touches on a new polar bear "transition center"--the province of Manitoba wanted to establish a place where those cubs could be flown, triaged, and fattened back up, before being distributed to zoos. It was basically an orphanage, but with an adjoining classroom to accommodate school field trips. The orphaned cubs would be leveraged as an educational tool--stirring proof of what climate change was actually, already doing. The trick would be to explain it to the kids in a way that instilled hope, and didn't just terrify them. "I think the message is going to have to be pretty carefully crafted," a zoo official told me.
The flamboyant crusade for the polar bear underscores a quieter truth. Wildlife managers sometimes talk about a species' "cultural carrying capacity," meaning that it's not just the availability of food or habitat that determines how well a species will fare, but also--if not mostly--our willingness to tolerate it or help it along. Normally, it's the cultural carrying capacity of animals totally unlike the polar bear that seems to matter most in their survival--animals that live in close proximity to us and that, consequently, we're prone to lose patience with, like deer or wild turkeys. But by now, with humans exerting such overwhelming influence on the planet, it seems that even the welfare of a far-flung creature like the polar bear depends on our goodwill. Here, at the lip of Hudson Bay, was an animal whose cultural carrying capacity had suddenly become tremendous; that, in fact, had reached into the deep murk of human psychology and reformed its entire reputation, from vicious monster to sweet and cuddly star. Still, its future wasn't so bright. Partly, I'd find, that's because the threat of climate change is just so colossal and complicated. And partly it's because you can get so mesmerized and impressed by the polar bear's charisma that the truth of its predicament gets lost.
The longer I stayed in Churchill, the more stories I found mushrooming out of this one grungy town: stories about Thomas Jefferson, teddy bears, opossums, and sharks, all showing the convoluted and sometimes arbitrary ways in which we forge feelings about wild animals; and also the story of the Endangered Species Act, the law through with which we impose those feelings on the landscape, shaping it so that certain off-brand animals are left to fend for themselves while the icons we love are battened in place.
In the 21st century, how species survive, or go to die, may have more to do with Barnum than with Darwin. Emotion matters. Imagination matters. The way we see a species can impact its standing on the planet more than anything covered in ecology textbooks. And so, suddenly, the question out on the tundra was, What did we all think that we were seeing when we looked at these bears?
* * *
When Buggy 1 finally caught up to her, Martha Stewart's Tundra Buggy--Buggy 2--was parked. Her crew was filming an imposing, solitary male bear, standing on its hind legs behind a snowdrift. It was a lucky find. No one likes to shoot polar bears without snow--it just looks wrong--and it had been so warm lately that there was little snow in the viewing area, just rocks, mud slush, and dust. But here the wind had aggregated the last evidence of a snowfall into a curling ridge, several feet high. The bear began pawing the top of it. Then it climbed under the curl of snow and stretched his paws and legs straight out, like a drowsy cartoon grizzly settling into a hollow log. After that he got out and bashed the snowdrift to the ground. It was a stellar action sequence. "Martha's going to be happy," a woman on PBI's staff whispered.
Our driver backed up Buggy 1 to dock with the rear of Martha's vehicle. Quickly, an editorial meeting started taking shape on the two conjoined decks. One of Martha's producers, a man with a biting, hard-to-place regional accent, explained the shot he wanted: Martha would watch the sunset and chat with Dr. Steven Amstrup, who had just retired as one of the United States government's top polar bear biologists to join PBI as its senior scientist. The two of them would stand on the back of Buggy 1 while the crew filmed them from the other vehicle, parked far enough away to get a wide shot.
The talent boarded Buggy 1. The driver pulled out and got into position. "Talk about the tundra itself! The ecosystem! What the tundra comprises! How it's not just rocks and snow!" the producer yelled from the other deck. But, much to his mystification, the Polar Bears International employee driving Buggy 1 had ground the vehicle back into gear and was now executing a series of harried, multi-pointed turns. (The driver was worried he'd parked in such a way that the PBI logo on the back of Buggy 1 wouldn't make it into the shot.) The producer seemed to be in a hurry. The sun was slipping away. He kept shouting his directions: "The actual tundra! What does it comprise?"
By now, the bear near the snowdrift had wandered off. A few of us had watched it issue a cascade of liquid crap onto the ground, then turn to smell it. When the cameras finally rolled and Martha and Amstrup strolled onto the deck of Buggy 1 and hit their marks, I noticed another polar bear, or maybe the same one from before, loping off, out of frame, away from the commotion and back into the unfathomable nothingness where it somehow makes its living.
"Now, polar bears," Martha Stewart said to the biologist, beginning a take. "Where do they come from?"
This post is adapted from Jon Mooallem's new book, Wild Ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking at People Looking at Animals in America.