spea magazine

Picture This

Photo Essay

Bieder and the Bear

Bob Bieder was lunching in London when his British colleague mentioned that he’d snagged a contract to edit a series of books about animals—not only the usual ones, but creatures like the cockroach and the clam and one of Bieder’s personal favorites, the bear. The SPEA Bloomington professor signed on and the result is Bear, a compact and comprehensive volume that explores the history, imagery, and mythology surrounding this fascinating animal.

Bieder’s book begins when the bears do, roughly 27 million years ago with Ursavus elemensis, a terrier-sized creature that many scientists consider the first in the bear line. Bieder’s book traverses vast chronological terrain, from 285 BC, when a great white bear at Ptolemy II’s court was paraded through the streets of Alexandria, to the British Parliament’s outlawing of dancing bears in 1911; from the 8th-century Norse warriors known as “berserkers” who took on bear-like ferocity in battle, to the practice of “bear-baiting,” an illegal but still popular “sport” in Pakistan and other Middle Eastern countries.bears

Bieder also details the start of Korean bear farming in the early ’60s—bile is extracted for use in traditional medicine while other bear parts are brutally harvested for restaurant delicacies and novelty items. Such farming has now spread to China and throughout Southeast Asia.

“I was surprised by all the ways in which bears are put to medicinal use, especially in Southeast Asia,” he says. While he was familiar with bile extraction, Bieder didn’t realize that hair, bones and certain organs were also used as remedies for everything from rheumatoid arthritis to sexual impotence. “These practices must be combated by education in order to protect the bears of Asia, which are already seriously endangered.”

Japanese scientists have developed synthetic bile but the Chinese and others still prefer the real thing. “This bile is worth more than gold and is equal to the price of heroin and the people behind the bear trade are like the Mafia. They’re dangerous. Wildlife officers who try to stand up to them are warned—and if they persist, they’re killed.”

There are, however, gentler ways to use bears in the service of medicine. Bear physiology may have important implications for human health, Bieder points out. “For instance, how can bears build up tremendous amounts of fat every fall with no ill effects on the heart? How do they come out of hibernation and still walk as well as they did when they went into hibernation? After three weeks of no activity, human muscles seem to atrophy but bear muscle doesn’t. Why not? And how can bears go for such a long period of time without eliminating wastes? And how do bears find their way back home, even after they’ve been moved 500 miles away?”

In researching bears for his book, Bieder became particularly fascinated by the Polar Bear and its apparent paradoxes. This is a bear that hunts by lying down, whose main problem is not keeping warm but keeping cool, whose fur appears white but is actually translucent, and whose skin is completely black. The Polar Bear is capable of leaping eight feet out of the water and landing on to an ice floe. It can smash through three feet of snow and ice to pull out a seal and flip it into the air, using only its head and neck. “It’s also the only bear that stalks humans,” Bieder adds. “The Inuit say that when they go hunting, sometimes they win and sometimes the bear wins. The bears can smell humans several miles away.”

From the cuddly Teddy to the avuncular Smokey, bears have long captured the popular imagination. Unfortunately, the day may come when bears exist only in our imagination, or in artificial habitats like zoos. “It’s my belief that all bears, except the American Black Bear, will be gone by the end of this century,” Bieder says, pointing to such destructive forces as habitat loss, global warming, illegal trade, poaching, and ocean contamination. “And if we lose bears, we lose a critical link to the wild. That’s sad, but more than that, it severely diminishes the biodiversity that we humans need to survive.”

Robert Bieder is a visiting professor specializing in American environmental history and urban environments and American Indian environments. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 1972.