- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 5, 2001

They're cute. They're big. They're fuzzy. Polar bears are the top-selling photo topic in sheer number of requests at the National Geographic Society, says Maura Mulvihill, its vice president of image collection.
"They resonate with individuals," she says. The second-best selling image? Geishas.
"One person joked that if we could get a geisha on the back of a polar bear, we could sell the heck out of it," she said.
Animated polar bears have been used in Coke commercials, but these days one classic photo of polar beardom has completed the unlikely feat of uniting environmentalist and energy producer.
German photographer Norbert Rosing's mother-and-child depiction of a polar bear cub asleep atop its snoozing mom has gotten snapped up for ad purposes by some 20 clients, including two opposing agencies. One is the National Resources Defense Council, which used the image on postcards to raise money to lobby Congress against opening up part of the 19-million-acre Arctic National Wildlife Refuge on Alaska's North Slope to oil exploration.
The other is Phillips 66, which is producing crude oil and natural gas on the North Slope. Its ad copy beneath the sleeping bear and cub philosophized that "Anyone can get oil out of the North Slope. The trick is to leave everything else."
That "else" includes polar bear dens, says Ron Stanley, Phillips 66 corporate ad manager. His company's infra-red technology helps it spot where the dens are in the tundra and avoid them.
"We got 10 times more reaction on that ad than any I've worked on for the past five years," he says. "People loved the ad its maternal, serene, protected feel.
"Bears in general are considered cute and interesting. They represent strength and are an endearing species."
Bob Ferris, whose Defenders of Wildlife agency uses a similar polar bear-and-cub photo from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to publicize its environmental stance, begs to differ.
"The problem is their infra-red technology doesn't always work," he says. "It's not as clean and easy as they've led people to believe."
Confined to cold climes in places like Alaska, northern Canada, Norway, Greenland and Russia, polar bears, possibly the perfect symbol for the 2000s, are at once exotic and familiar, maternal and majestic.
Polar bears are the emblem of the campaign to save the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, America's most significant polar bear breeding grounds. Bears mate in late spring on pack ice, then repair to their dens in the fall to give birth. By the time they emerge in the spring, the female bears have not eaten in months.
Which is when Mr. Rosing snapped his mother-and-cub photo near the bear dens just outside of Chuchill, Manitoba, "the polar bear capital of the world" on the western shore of Hudson Bay.
"This was a friendly mother," he remembers. "She just lay down and the little one crawled on her back. They lay there for a half hour."
Now photographing eagles in Alaska, Mr. Rosing says he got one phone call from an American radio station accusing him of selling out to oil interests. "I had no idea," he said, as the image is a stock photo that can be sold by National Geographic to various clients.
Some of his photos made it into a 10-page spread on a bear and her cub triplets in the December 2000 National Geographic. On a trip this fall to Chuchill, "I met people who came up there because of my article. What they didn't think about is that bear cubs are big now. They needed to come last March."
Mr. Rosing, who has been photographing the white-pelted, black-eyed creatures for 12 years, estimates 5,000 to 6,000 tourists journey to Chuchill yearly to see them.
"They are so cute to look at," he says. "They are very powerful. When people see them, they laugh and scream and clap their hands.
"A piece I did on walruses didn't get half the [reprint] requests."
There are limits, of course. This symbol of the endangered north, scrappy motherhood and cub cuteness cannot be brought within close range as, say, baby harp seals, with which Brigitte Bardot lay down in the snow to dramatize humane treatment of animals.
As the largest land carnivore, polar bears can be as tall as 8 feet and weigh at least 650 pounds. Winter months are spent on the sea, ice hunting seals, and summer months are spent on the land.
Because the ice has been melting earlier each year due to warming trends, bears are getting less feeding time and are less able to nurse their young. They also end up scavenging in human settlements. So many descend upon Churchill that the city has built polar bear "jails" to hold the large mammals until fall, when the ice re-forms.
Miss Mulvihill says their photogenic appeal rises in proportion to how they reflect human qualities. A National Geographic poster of a another sleeping bear on the ice that she says "looks like your uncle sleeping on the couch" sold thousands. Another photo of a polar bear playing with a tire "rang the phone off the hooks," she says.
"We respond to their anthropomorphic qualities. I think the fact that they're white and fluffy and in the snow helps. They are also known to be good mamas."
Polar bears are also making their way into that irrefutable gauge of culture, children's books. At Borders Books & Music, for instance, two recent books, both called "The Snow Bear," are on children's shelves.
One, by Miriam Moss, talks of a lost polar bear cub looking for his mother. The other, by Liliana Stafford, is about an Inuit Eskimo boy who develops a lifelong friendship with a polar bear who has lost her cubs but saves his life. Years later, he finds her, slow and growing old on the ice. He feeds her with seals for months until she peacefully dies in his arms.
True, stuffed polar bears only take up two shelves at Toys R Us, compared with much larger stacks of brown Winnie the Pooh replicas. But the live versions act out their own bit of social commentary, as all bear family scenes are fatherless. Nomadic males play no role in cub bearing and are actually quite dangerous to cubs, so the mother avoids them.
And in case motherhood is not enough, Defenders of Wildlife offers a chance to "adopt a polar bear" on its Web site: www.savearcticrefuge.org. For $25, one gets a stuffed bear and a "polar bear adoption kit."
"You can adopt a cuddly cub like Snowflake," the site proclaims next to a Madonnalike photo of a polar mom protecting her wide-eyed offspring, "and help save her life!"

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times is switching its third-party commenting system from Disqus to Spot.IM. You will need to either create an account with Spot.im or if you wish to use your Disqus account look under the Conversation for the link "Have a Disqus Account?". Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.

 

Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide