Book Review: Three Bears, not Eight

A Review of Gloria Dickie’s Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future

In my life I have had the privilege of seeing more grizzlies, more blacks, and more polar bears than I can remember, most at respectable distances but some a bit too close for comfort.  And while I may not be able to recall details about each encounter, I can say with certainty that I cherished all of them.  Bears are wonderous animals.  

And I have read my share of books about bears, from which I know that most nonfiction bear books focus on attacks.  They draw readers in with lurid accounts of bears ripping humans apart, or of humans narrowly avoiding the sudden removal of body parts with the aid of a shotgun blast or, in some cases, with a concentrated stream of capsicum spray.  But sometimes bear books focus on conservation, painting their subjects as intelligent, deserving, and even gentle.  

More often than not, both kinds of books are not so much about bears in general as they are about grizzlies in particular, or possibly about the more familiar and somewhat less fearsome black bears.  And granted, a few books have taken on the polar bear, usually and justifiably with some focus on disappearing sea ice, on vanishing polar bear habitat.

While Gloria Dickie’s wonderful Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future does not shy away from the kinds of human-bear interactions that make for good copy, it also offers travel to Asia and South America, exchanges with purveyors of bear bile, quotes from ursine luminaries, and an engaging mix of science and experience.  But more importantly the book presents five bear species that few North Americans or western Europeans, including me, can readily describe.  Which is to say, Dickie fills us in on the current status, past history, and likely future of all eight of the world’s remaining bear species.  In addition to the grizzly, the black, and the polar, the eight beasts of Eight Bears include the spectacled, sloth, panda, moon, and sun bears of Ecuador, Peru, India, China, and southeast Asia. 

When considering animals as engaging as bears, the facts alone have much to offer.  It is a fact, for example, that the sloth bear is the deadliest of all bears in terms of the number of people killed each year, yet its normal diet consists of fruit, ants, and termites.  Another fact is that moon and sun bears are commonly held in captivity so that their bile can be extracted and sold as a traditional medicine.  And still another is that at least one small town in Canada maintains a jail for misbehaving polar bears.  Interesting panda facts: They are often used by the Chinese in diplomatic maneuvers, they are the most expensive of all animals to keep in captivity, and China, when miffed over political or economic disagreements, can ask for the return of individuals previously loaned to the zoos of other countries.  

But mere facts are only a small part of any great book.  Emotion, too, must come into play, rendering complicated realities memorable.  In one example of emotionally evocative writing, Eight Bears drills into the bear bile story.  Understanding the workings of the bile trade requires information about the changing laws and practices of several countries.  It is the sort of convoluted account that could, in less capable hands, leave readers yawning.  But Dickie draws us in, transporting us to farms, introducing us to farmers.  And along the way she shows us that bile farm bears—intelligent creatures—can spend their lives from cub-hood onward in “coffin cages,” so called because they provide no room for the animal to turn around.  They eat what Dickie describes as “a cheap grain mash” that sustains them and fattens them until their flesh bulges between the coffin cage bars.  And their keepers, their owners, cut into their abdomens, “inserting a stainless steel needle through the incision to create a permanent canal leading directly into the gallbladder.”  

The method, some claim, saves bears.  They no longer have to be killed to provide bile.  But the method also increased the bear bile supply, making it cheaper, which in turn made it more popular.  As a result, ever more bears were captured and caged.  Now, wild populations appear to have declined.  Obese living shadows of bears that should have been wandering far afield fill tiny barred pens.

In the cages, with the permanent needle that lets each bear’s inner fluids steadily drip into holding containers, “more bile could be obtained for far less effort.”   

Dickie’s words warrant repeating: “More bile could be obtained for less effort.”  These eight words emanate a chilling echo.  How has the profit motive come to this?  And how can the words “human” and “humane” possibly be related?

As horrifying as the vision of a bile farm may be, the greater tragedy may not be with the bear in the cage.  Dickie frequently turns toward the issue of bear conservation, and near the end of her book she leaves us with a deeply troubling passage.  “At the end of my odyssey from cloud forest to sea ice, only three bear species seemed destined to prosper beyond the end of this century—the American black bear, the brown bear, and the panda,” she writes.  “Indeed, the future itself reads much like a fairy tale: The Three Bears.”

I suspect that the author would join me in hoping that her prognosis will be proven wrong.  Why?  Because in reading Eight Bears, her love of bruins cannot be missed.

A polar bear on the Alaskan coast of the Chukchi Sea. Photo by Lisanne Aerts.
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