The following interview originally appeared in the Smithsonian magazine newsletter and is adapted and used with permission. The product of meticulous research, Ice Bear: The Cultural History of an Arctic Icon by Michael Engelhard traces and illuminates over 8,000 years of history between polar bears and humans. With more than 160 color illustrations, Engelhard brings into focus the powerful and elusive White Bear—and explains how and why it endures as a source of wonder, terror, and fascination.
What new angle does your book bring out about polar bears?
I am proud to say that Ice Bear is the only book available in any language that focuses entirely on the cultural aspects of polar bears—on 8,000 years of history shared between them and us.
Why have polar bears captured the human imagination?
For a number of reasons: From their physique to their behavior, they resemble us in many ways. They are big, charismatic top predators living in one of Earth’s most unforgiving environments. They are symbolic of the Arctic, one of the last frontiers of the human imagination. Lastly, we’ve long associated whiteness in animals with certain qualities: the rare, the pure, or the sacred.
What’s the biggest misconception people have about the polar bears?
That they’re ruthless “man killers.” I think they are just getting a bad rap, often getting in trouble for what only amounts to curiosity—a trait that, ironically, makes them survivors in a sparse environment. The statistics show that brown bears kill and maul more people per year than polar bears do. Of course their smaller numbers and remoteness also play a role there. Like most creatures, polar bears just want to eat, to keep living, and to protect their young.
Which individual story or fact were you most surprised to uncover?
It’s hard to choose. But I enjoyed learning about a scheme to train polar bears to pull Amundsen’s sleds to the pole. It involved the German circus entrepreneur and animal trader Carl Hagenbeck, who also revolutionized zoo design. Also, the early medieval commerce in Greenlandic polar bear cubs, which Norse settlers traded to European royalty, for their menageries.
How has writing the book changed the way you see polar bears?
I only now realize the degree to which they have been instrumentalized, how we always have molded them to fit our agendas. With all the symbolic ballast and history, it is hard, perhaps even impossible, to see them objectively. That’s because hardly any other animal has been burdened more with our projections. It’s as if their whiteness and remoteness invited that.
Michael Engelhard works as a wilderness guide in Arctic Alaska and holds an MA in cultural anthropology from the University of Alaska Fairbanks. His books include Where the Rain Children Sleep: A Sacred Geography of the Colorado Plateau, the anthology Wild Moments: Adventures with Animals of the North, and a recent essay collection, American Wild: Explorations from the Grand Canyon to the Arctic Ocean. His writing has also appeared in Sierra, Outside, Audubon, National Wildlife, National Parks, High Country News, and the San Francisco Chronicle.