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The loneliest polar bear has company in a warming world

In early November 2015, a polar bear cub named Nora was abandoned by her mother at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, leaving her fate in the hands of a team of veterinarians and zookeepers. The Loneliest Polar Bear: A True Story of Survival and Peril on the Edge of a Warming World tells the story of the frantic effort to keep Nora alive and well, from the struggles of replicating polar bear milk to an hours-long surgery to fix a broken bone in her leg.

But the book, an expansion of author Kale Williams’ 2017 series about Nora for The Oregonian / OregonLive, goes beyond the life of a single bear. It details the political battles over the existence of climate change, debates about the ethics of zoos, and the already disastrous effects of global warming on native Alaskan villages.

The Verge spoke to Williams about pulling all of these pieces together, writing about native communities, and the trouble of holding up one animal as a mascot for a complex problem.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

There are a lot of very riveting and emotional moments packed into this book. So my first question for you is, did you cry at all when you were writing it?

Absolutely, on more than one occasion. Do you want just the writing part or the reporting part? Do you want travel frustrations or just emotional destitution?

Tell me about the emotional destitution.

I think probably one of the hardest parts, this was actually after the manuscript was finished, and we were sort of in the editing phase and starting fact-checks. But last year, and this was hard for lots of reasons other than just the book itself, but I had been reading so much about climate change and talking to so many people who had been affected by it, and then the pandemic had hit. And then the wildfires in Oregon just brought this blanket of smoke into Portland that seemed to stick around forever. And that was really, I think, the low point for me because it kind of just brought home all these different themes of, you know, there was so much science denial going on around the pandemic, and it was just so reminiscent of all the stuff that I had sort of been reading about for the book and that I researched and writing about. And then to have that with the smoke on top of it was really just, at a lot of times felt like it was too much to bear.

The book covers the history of polar bears and their habitats, the difficulty of raising them in captivity, the history of climate studies, the precarity of native populations in Alaska — and that’s all within the first 50 or so pages. So was it tough to weave all these different threads together?

It was, but I thought it was important to do so because I really wanted to place both humans and polar bears in their present situation by looking at how we got here, even on a geological timescale. We’ve all adapted to the world as it exists now, and we’ve been able to do so because it has changed on a geologic pace. But that is no longer the case. Obviously, the changes that we’re seeing now are much more rapid. So those adaptations that we’ve been able to do are not going to be enough for a lot longer. As the pace of change increases, then we are obviously going to need to adapt more quickly, which will be possible for some of us, those of us with means, but not possible for others, who aren’t able to escape wildfires in hotels or ice storms in shelters, or for polar bears who don’t have the advantage of being able to leave their habitat.

Nora at the Oregon Zoo in 2017. Her father, Nanuq, was born near Wales, Alaska, where warming temperatures threaten the livelihoods of both polar bears and native people who depend on seasonal ice sheets for hunting.Photo by Dave Killen / The Oregonian

There’s sort of a “come for the cute polar bear cub, stay for the climate and indigenous justice” vibe to the book. So are you hoping people will be reeled in by Nora and then have larger takeaways from it?

Yeah, it struck me that I was kind of doing the same thing that zoos do. You know, where obviously there’s a draw that these types of animals have, and you can sort of use that as a vehicle for another message, but I think her story remains central to the book.

But I think, like I said before, I wanted to have this additional context of how people who live where polar bears do have learned to exist in the same type of harsh climate that seems inhospitable for those of us who live farther south. And you can’t really understand the problems that they’re facing without looking at the history of climate science and the rise of climate denial over the last 40 or 50 years.

So this is your first book, your first time writing and being edited in such a large format. Were there any stories or interesting facts that didn’t make it into the book?

Oh, man, there definitely were because we cut probably 25,000 words from the first draft to the final manuscript. I think that maybe is one of the areas where my editor helped the most was writing about the indigenous community up there. [Editor’s note: one of the main settings of the book is the village of Wales, Alaska.] I had a lot more on their history in some of the earlier drafts, including this whole long story about the first missionaries that went to Wales and the schools that they set up and how one of them ended up getting murdered by a couple of teenagers in the village, mostly because he was a supreme asshole to all of the people that lived there and treated them all with great disdain, was horribly racist, had no respect for any of their culture or traditions.

That didn’t make it into the story. But I think that’s probably for the best. One of the things that I’ve been trying to pay close attention to is there’s a hashtag going around that was, I think it was like “OwnStories,” where people from these communities should be allowed to tell their own stories. And it’s not really my place to write the complete unabridged history of the village because there are lots of people who are more informed on that topic than I am. And for me to come in as an outsider and try to tell that story, it’s probably not my place.

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

You talk about polar bears being a really complicated mascot for climate change and also the trickiness of trying to figure out if an animal is happy. But there are also a lot of anecdotes about Nora’s caretakers connecting in a really emotional way with her. Do you think there are problems that come with ascribing human traits and feelings to animals?

I do, yeah. You know, obviously, anthropomorphizing has its drawbacks. I mean, we can project things onto animals that it’s impossible to know whether they’re actually experiencing. But I do think that there are plenty of ways to know whether an animal is doing well or not doing well.

There are dangers to ascribing human emotions to animals. But I think it’s also dangerous to think of them as, you know, big bags of meat that don’t have any sort of emotion at all. I don’t think it’s possible for us to necessarily understand how they experience that emotion. But I think it would be dangerous to think that they have no emotions whatsoever because then you are free to not care how well they’re doing. And you can treat them however you want. And I don’t think that’s right, either.

I’ll be honest, when I looked at the cover of the book, I felt a little like, “Oh man, here we go” because when I was a kid, I definitely grew up in the era where it felt like every day at school, people were saying, “We have to save the polar bears,” to the point at which polar bears became sort of an empty signifier and just barely have any meaning anymore. Do you feel like through the process of writing this book, your feelings about the polar bear as a mascot or about conservation efforts or how we talk about climate change, did they change throughout the writing of this book?

I don’t know if they changed, but I certainly became more aware of the problems of having any sort of poster child or figurehead or mascot for a problem that’s as complex and multifaceted as climate change. I mean, anytime you simplify something as big as the climate crisis into “We need to save the polar bears,” something is going to be lost.

There are 19 populations that are around the Arctic. And some of them are certainly declining, others are stable, some are growing, others they have no idea about. When you put the polar bear up there as “We need to save this animal,” when, in fact, some of these populations are growing, then people who want to argue in bad faith can come back and say, “What do you mean we need to save the polar bears? We’ve got populations that are trending upwards. This is why all of climate science is fake.”

When you have one mascot at the top of your flag, and everybody is supposed to rally around, it provides opportunities for people like that to come in and sort of cherry-pick and dismiss your whole argument. That being said, you know, if the polar bear is what it takes to inspire action in somebody, then I don’t really see the harm in that. It’s just a matter of trying to weigh those two things against each other.

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