Ursine Odyssey Seeks Insight Into Future for Bears

July 26, 2023
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BookShelf: Ursine Odyssey Seeks Insight Into Future for Bears

“Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future”
By Gloria Dickie
W.W. Norton & Co., $30

Reviewed by Frances Backhouse

For much of the past decade, environmental journalist Gloria Dickie has been on an ursine odyssey. Her travels have taken her to seven countries on three continents, seeking out the world’s eight bear species and probing our bonds with them. The result is an engaging and insightful book that will undoubtedly broaden your view of these animals.

Image of Eight Bears book cover

“Eight Bears,” released for publication on July 11, opens with a prologue and introduction that trace the evolutionary path of the Ursidae family and touch on the ways humans have treated — and mistreated — bears over the millennia that we have been living alongside them.

In the chapters that follow, Dickie occasionally returns to the “mythic past” alluded to in the subtitle but concentrates on illuminating the bears’ present circumstances and contemplating their future.

She begins in the cloud forests of Ecuador and Peru, tagging along with several biologists who are studying the spectacled bear, also known as the Andean bear.

In both countries, these small, shy and increasingly rare bears elude Dickie, but she doesn’t come away empty-handed. Her conversations with the scientists and boots-on-the-ground research (or, in one instance, boots on a rickety wooden bridge that collapses under the feet of the biologist behind her) yield a rich picture of the spectacled bear’s ecology, threatened status and place in local culture.

This species also has cultural connections far beyond the Andes. Children’s book author Michael Bond cast his fictional Paddington Bear as a spectacled bear from “Darkest Peru.” His inspiration for the character came from seeing bewildered young evacuees trudging through London train stations during World War II. Dickie closes the chapter with a somber reflection on how Bond’s species choice has taken on new meaning.

“In Bond’s hands, the spectacled bear was a parable for the plight of thousands of human refugees and the cost of war,” she writes. “Now the animal was fulfilling Paddington’s fiction. If deforestation continues unabated, the spectacled bear, too, would become a refugee, pushed away from its homeland, never to return.”

Bringing bears to life on the page

From South America, we moved to Asia to meet sloth bears in India, pandas in China and moon bears and sun bears in Vietnam.


Dickie has an aptitude for bringing

her subjects to life on the page

with brief sketches that capture

their appearance and demeanor.


Dickie has an aptitude for bringing her subjects to life on the page with brief sketches that capture their appearance and demeanor. One of my favorites is her description of the sloth bear, which is “very much the ragamuffin of the bear world” with a “brushy mane of fur [that] surrounds beady eyes the color of burnt chai, … coarse black [body] hair [that] sticks out in all directions [and] lanky limbs and big paws with yellow claws.”

Sloth bears mainly eat fruit and bugs, using their large, floppy lips to vacuum up ants and termites. Yet they kill and maim more people than any other bear species. Dickie devotes much of the sloth bear chapter to exploring why this species is so deadly and how its rap sheet is affecting its survival in the modern world.

While the violence that sloth bears inflict on humans is defensive and instinctual, the same cannot be said for the cruel human practice of enslaving and brutalizing these animals to turn them into “dancing” bears.

Dickie’s first sight of a sloth bear is at a rescue center in Agra, India, that cares for some of the scarred and traumatized survivors of this now nearly obsolete tradition. Her last is of wild bears living in a 70-square-mile sloth bear reserve that is trying to give this species the room it needs for a peaceful existence.


Best and worst of human-bear interactions

Dickie’s other two stops in Asia also feature captive bears, highlighting the best and the worst of human dealings with these animals.

In China, she visits the Dujiangyan Panda Base and spends a day splitting bamboo for the pampered inmates as part of a crew of volunteer panda husbandry learners. She also sits down for an in-depth interview with the man who has led China’s captive panda breeding program for nearly 40 years, saving the species from extinction and, as an opportune spinoff, creating the living commodity that supports the Chinese government’s panda diplomacy.


Both sun bears and Asiatic black bears

are kept in horrific conditions and

repeatedly tapped for the valuable

product of their gallbladders.


Then it’s on to Vietnam to investigate the bear-bile trade. Although outlawed in the country, this lucrative business continues to operate. Both sun bears and Asiatic black bears, also known as moon bears, are kept in horrific conditions and repeatedly tapped for the valuable product of their gallbladders.

Dickie manages to gain admittance to one illicit operation by posing as a prospective buyer and leaves feeling “hard-pressed to come up with another animal that lives a life of greater misery than the bile bear.” But a visit to a sanctuary that cares for former bile bears and recent progress in shutting down bile farms across Asia give her hope for these beleaguered bears.


In North America, interactions fraught with conflicts

Finally, Dickie returns to home ground in North America. Here, as elsewhere in the world, interactions between humans and bears are often fraught with conflict.

In the chapters on black bears and grizzly bears, we hear from an array of biologists, wildlife managers, victims and advocates who are all dealing with that conflict one way or another. It’s all good stuff, but the bears themselves are curiously absent from these pages. There are no accounts of any encounters Dickie may have had with them and no evidence that she ever went looking for them.

I was also surprised that Dickie never looks beyond the Lower 48 states in the grizzly bear chapter. Although this region is the political epicenter of American grizzly bear politics, I expected at least a passing mention of grizzlies in Alaska or British Columbia, where the vast majority of these bears reside and are faced with their own unique challenges, such as the collapse of the salmon stocks on which they depend.

The last chapter is one of the book’s liveliest, despite Dickie’s mostly frustrated attempts to get a firsthand look at her favorite ursid, the polar bear, in the Canadian Arctic.

It’s also one of the book’s most poignant segments. The sea ice that this species depends on is disappearing at an alarming rate and extinction is now inevitable for some polar bear populations, even if we manage to hold the line on greenhouse gas emissions.

Dickie’s brief epilogue is a call to action. Climate change and the accelerating loss of critical bear habitat in our overcrowded world are hard problems to tackle, she admits, but if we don’t address these issues, we may lose some or all of the world’s eight bears and the “beautiful and complex relationship” we have with them.

[Editor's Note: Read an interview with Dickie in our Freelance Files column.]

Frances Backhouse is a journalist, author and SEJournal associate editor. Her writing about bears includes articles for The Tyee, Canadian Geographic, Nature Canada and British Columbia Magazine, and a book for 9- to 12-year-olds, “Grizzly Bears: Guardians of the Wilderness.” She is also a former biologist whose most memorable field season was a five-month stint studying grizzly bears on the north coast of British Columbia.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 8, No. 28. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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