ON THIN ICE by Richard Ellis


The Changing World of the Polar Bear
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Veteran science writer Ellis (Tuna: A Love Story, 2008, etc.) celebrates the powerful white beast that has become the poster child for global warming.

Listed in 2008 as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the polar bear has been transformed in recent years “from killer of seals and attacker of men to cute, furry, beloved icon,” thanks to Coca-Cola advertising and consumers’ preference for all things cuddly. In fact this awesome predator—now in decline and numbering 22,000 worldwide—long ruled the Arctic until men in ships spied their luxurious white pelts. Hunted by whalers and sportsmen, the bears became gifts for royalty and soon decorated floors in front of fireplaces. In this engrossing natural history, Ellis pays homage to the great bears and corrects misperceptions, noting that attacks by these beautiful giants are rare, and, given the sensitivity of their noses (they can smell a decaying whale carcass 20 miles away), they are easily thwarted with pepper spray. The author quotes at length from diaries, reports, articles and other material to describe these curious and individualistic mammals, which weigh up to 1,700 pounds and depend for their survival on the sea ice of several nations (Canada, United States, Denmark, Norway and Russia). Banned elsewhere, sport hunting is still permitted in parts of Canada, home to 15,000 of the world’s polar bears; tourists pay up to $40,000 for guided hunting. Among other aspects of bear lore and history, Ellis describes the Inuits’ fear and worship of the great bear; the lives of hunter-explorer Robert Peary and circus trainer Ursula Bottcher; and how polar bears fare in zoos, where, deprived of their customary surroundings, they sometimes act aberrantly and attack humans. The author includes a lengthy discussion of the “noticeable effect” of climate warming on the bears—from forcing them to swim further in search of ice floes, sometimes dying of exhaustion, to causing the collapse of the little dens that pregnant females dig in the snow, trapping the mother and cubs inside.

Timely and readable.

Pub Date: Nov. 18th, 2009
ISBN: 978-0-307-27059-7
Page count: 416pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 2009


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