New: On Thin Ice: The Changing World of the Polar Bear by Richard Ellis
Richard Ellis is a well-known marine conservationist, writer, and nature artist who is fascinated by our contradictory relationships with endangered wildlife, marine in particular – whether with fascination and fear or love and hate, or to save and destroy. I was familiar with iconic artwork, including his beautiful mural at the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts.
Ellis’s motivation for On Thin Ice about polar bears is that they represent both our veneration for wildlife and disrespect for nature and in particular the polar bear’s Arctic environment, under siege from global warming and melting ice. He quotes American naturalist Henry Beston, who claimed animals not “as brethren, underlings, but as other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time…”
Ellis begins with personal encounters of his own with polar bears (Ursus maritimus, the marine bear) and recounts historical encounters of early Europeans and also modern polar explorers with the bears (who have primarily been hunted or simply killed for no reason).
He also relays less-known information on its curious morphology (such as its extraordinary abilities to smell through 2 feet of ice from miles away, to fast for up to 8 months of the year, unlike other bears, and also to delay pregnancy), diet (almost entirely of ringed seal), behavior (ranging from remarkably playful, calm and curious to aggressive, threatening, and dangerous).
Ellis also outlines polar bears’ circumpolar population distributions (somewhere between 20,000 to 30,000) and variable life chances in several countries where they are found today – also interesting to learn of. His chapters on the bears alongside Eskimos, inside traveling circuses and zoos, and on its status (we love and fear its whiteness, shape, and the cuteness of the cubs such as Knut in the Berlin Zoo), both sadden and fire our imaginations.
Over the years I’ve seen polar bears in city zoos, invariably shuffling about or swimming. I also remember Norbert Rosing’s famous photos of a wild polar bear in Churchill, Canada, who for a week came every night to play with a sled dog.
Another of Ellis’s other recent written works, also available at Lantana Public Library, is Tuna: A Love Story, a well-received bio-history on the tuna fish and its future. It’s a good read for anyone interested in better understanding the fish, our insatiable love of eating it, and the global fishing industry that endangers its existence. (Also, read the June 2008 Scientific American article available on-line.)