To Bear Witness: The Polar Bear as Refugee in Speculative Fiction
Polar bears are a charismatic species. They’re also one of the most visible victims of climate change, as the Arctic ice melts and deprives the bears of much of their hunting grounds, forcing them to spend more time onshore instead of out on the ice, and to exploit terrestrial food sources in order to avoid starvation.1 Given the influence of environmental change and environmental awareness on contemporary speculative fiction, it’s no surprise to come across narratives that feature the polar bear. Some of these narratives center them in a very particular way: as refugees.
In her poetry collection louder (2018), which has a strong theme of ecological loss, Kerrin P. Sharpe’s poem “the bear” reimagines a polar bear as a refugee who has washed up on a beach. The bear, presented in almost human terms, is processed in the same way as that human might be; he has identity documents and interviews. When he tells his interviewers why he is migrating—the bear wishes to prolong his life—he is first ignored and then detained. Finally, the bear is deliberately frightened by uncaring officials and even more deliberately excluded. Moreover, he is depersonalized, which is an interesting choice for an anthropomorphic creature. The bear is not treated as an individual. Rather, he is treated as if he is a representative of all unwelcome migrants, as if he is a member of a faceless mass. Even his paw prints are destroyed, to make him indistinguishable from the rest of the migrants like himself. He is judged ineligible for refugee status, his identity not established enough for aid, and as a result the bear is left in a place of in-betweens: not allowed to live on land and incapable of living entirely at sea, he is considered to be displaced.
It’s a short, horrifying little poem that plays with the idea of humanity—who has it, and who doesn’t. It’s also not the only speculative polar bear text to interrogate the idea of exile. Yoko Tawada’s novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear (2016), while not explicitly linked to climate, follows three generations of anthropomorphic polar bears. The first of these, an exploited circus performer in the former Soviet Union, is the author of a bestselling autobiography that ends up being her ticket to freedom in the West. An invitation to a conference is, the bear discovers, a blind: “Someone had devised this escape for me, to save me from a danger I hadn’t known existed.” Later, the bear wonders how exactly it was decided that she was human enough to save. “I began to realize that my fate and the fate of human rights were inextricably entwined. Still, I didn’t know the first thing about them. The concept of human rights had been invented by people who were only thinking of human beings.” The polar bear, not a human being, has nevertheless exhibited enough human behavior to be able to benefit from the structures set up to benefit humans. It’s an experience of exile contingent on a finely balanced identity: the celebrity artist and the charismatic animal.
The exploration of identity, particularly nonhuman identity and how it intersects with our own, is likely to occur ever more frequently in speculative fiction, given that speculative writers live in a world that is becoming increasingly defined by climate change and ecological consequence. Charismatic species will most certainly be at the heart of this negotiation, if only because the general public is far more interested in big, fluffy, endangered bears than they are in less attractive creatures.
Polar bears are, after all, appealing. They’re beautiful, especially when they’re cubs. They’re massive, and size is surely a factor in the fascination they inspire. They’re also extremely dangerous hypercarnivores, which is an attraction all its own. And more and more, they are encroaching on human settlements. This raises difficulties because polar bears are apex predators and not a species that can be easily lived with if you’re made of meat.
We are made of meat. And increasingly, we see polar bears as made of flesh. It’s a fine distinction. Meat is consumable; meat is inferior. Flesh, as in flesh and blood, has elements of kinship. It’s why Sharpe and Tawada manipulate that flesh into hybrid form, molding polar bear flesh into a more recognizable form of migrant, and one who is all too easy to empathize with. All refugees should be given such consideration.
They are, of course, not.
Both Tawada and Sharpe anthropomorphize the polar bear refugee, giving them the ability to speak and navigate human systems, albeit with varying degrees of success. This is arguably an effective writing strategy, as ascribing human characteristics to animals has been shown to increase moral concern for those animals (although notably, it doesn’t work the other way around: describing humans in animallike terms does little to increase that concern).2
The opportunity to use polar bear migrants, polar bear refugees, to explore the consequences of contemporary issues such as climate is therefore ongoing. It’s not an opportunity that’s arisen out of nowhere. Animal or natural horror films often comment on environmental crises through a frequently ambiguously sympathetic antagonist, and bears are no exception, albeit they have typically been more often brown or grizzly bears than polar.
The mutant grizzly bear of Prophecy (1979) is a result of industrial pollution, after methylmercury is leaked into a forest water system; this may well have been inspired by the earlier outbreaks of methylmercury poisoning in Japan during the 1950s and 1960s. The massacres that occur in Grizzly Rage (2007) and Into the Grizzly Maze (2015) are sparked by the careless killing of a bear cub and poaching, respectively. When a polar bear does appear as the major antagonist of a horror film, such as in the 2015 movie Unnatural, it’s as a result of scientists genetically engineering larger, stronger polar bears in order to make them more resilient to climate change, which seems like a stunningly poor decision that is totally in keeping with the frequently appalling choices of the scientist in horror. (Admittedly, none of these films rise above the bottom of the B-grade barrel.)
Given that there is a history of bear-related horror that reacts to environmental issues, however, it seems as if the potential of the horrific polar bear, turned refugee after it can no longer survive in its usual habitats, is increasing. Space certainly exists for a more sophisticated eco-horror film treatment of the refugee polar bear, and this is something that may include an inescapable consequence of migration: hybrid reproduction.
Migration, of course, comes with the potential for interbreeding, as populations that have previously occupied different territories come together. The changing climate may alter the territories of both polar and grizzly bears, and when the two species share territory, the dreadfully named pizzly or grolar bear hybrid is one possible result.
An attitude of particular relevance, and one which may quietly, if unconsciously, underlie the treatment of polar bears in climate-influenced speculative fiction, especially horrific speculative fiction, relates to this interbreeding. A survey of attitudes regarding these polar/grizzly bear hybrids among people who lived in the United States discovered that while polar bears, grizzly bears, and their hybrids were all deemed to have the right to exist, both polar bears and grizzly bears were thought to have significantly more right to exist than the hybrids.3 That the hybrids were seen as being of less intrinsic worth than either of the parent species was put down to poor ecological awareness on behalf of the respondents, who believed that hybrids were less valuable within their ecosystems. There might just be another explanation, and it’s one that has its roots in horror.
The destabilizing nature of hybrid threats is something that the horror genre has long exploited. Undead creatures such as vampires and zombies straddle the borders between the living and the dead; shape-shifters like werewolves are both human and beast. Notably, these transgressive characters are linked with consumption: they can drink your blood and eat your flesh. They can also make you one of them. Get bitten by a zombie, a vampire, or a werewolf and you risk becoming a hybrid creature yourself. Whether it’s a virus or supernatural influence, close contact with a hybrid can induce hybridity in others. This is not to say that a human bitten by a polar bear turns into a freakish sort of werebear, but they do end up existing in the borderlands: an apex predator who becomes a prey animal in turn, which is a pretty monstrous hybrid to be if you think about it.
The monstrous presentation of the hybrid other in horror is well-established, and there are plenty of opportunities to give it a polar bear spin. Blurring this boundary between species even further are works like Vicki Jarrett’s Always North (2019), in which hybridity takes a surprising turn. Isobel, a scientist who was once complicit in oil drilling in the Arctic, and who had thereby chosen to help make the climate crisis worse, ends up a migrant herself, after society collapses in the wake of climate change. She’s had to live in government-run facilities for displaced persons, where living standards are unutterably low, without adequate food or hygiene. Isobel is only signed out of that facility in order to take part in an experiment on Snowball, a captive polar bear, himself an endangered migrant. That experiment verges on vivisection and hinges on merging Isobel’s consciousness with that of the bear. The final result is a part human, part nonhuman hybrid designed to function as a warning against environmental devastation. The polar bear becomes, therefore, a literal vehicle for a climate refugee of a different species. The bear, trapped in a cage like a coffin and studded with electrodes, loses his home because of anthropogenic climate change, and loses sovereignty over his own mind because as a nonhuman refugee, he is deemed even more exploitable than his human counterpart.
“The concept of human rights had been invented by people who were only thinking of human beings,” thinks the polar bear of Memoir, but these rights blur when the bears take on human characteristics. It can be easy to read works like Memoirs of a Polar Bear and “the bear” as metaphors for human migration. This is especially so as the effects of climate change on human migration—particularly forced migration, including that of internal displacement, and that which crosses international borders—are likely to be profound. However, this is an interpretation that has complex undertones. Exploring the image of the refugee bear, for instance, risks a lazy conflation between human and nonhuman refugees, one which, given the perception of polar bears as dangerous animals, would be viciously inaccurate and unpleasant. Although as Tawada in particular shows, such does not have to be the case.
In this, the speculative treatment of the polar bear may prove actively critical of inadequate treatment of migrants. Problems in providing adequate food, accommodation, and physical and mental health resources are naturally not limited to bears. Recalling Kerrin P. Sharpe’s “the bear” and how it ultimately categorizes the refugee polar bear as “displaced,” the question of how to handle this ursine displacement is inescapable. As polar bears migrate from territories that can no longer support them, they may end up migrating to territories that have substantial human populations. What happens, then, to these displaced bears? There are a number of options.
Problem bears can be killed, but this is hardly an ongoing or sustainable solution, nor is it one that is likely to be palatable to vast swathes of the general public if the conservation status of those bears moves from vulnerable to actively endangered. Other responses can include food programs that supplement resources available to wild populations, rehabilitation and rerelease through short-term housing, long-term accommodation in captive habitats, and translocation.4 Each of these has its own challenges, which mostly boil down to expenses and logistics that are consistently associated with the provision of food, shelter, and transport. In some cases, however, there are ethical limitations concerning animal welfare. Polar bears often do poorly in captivity, so confining rescued bears to zoo environments, for instance, can prove controversial, especially as the reality of ecological devastation is so clearly linked with human responsibility for that devastation, and with the necessity for environmental justice.
Both displaced animals and displaced humans have a legitimate claim on that justice. Acknowledgement of this, no matter how repressed, is capable of shifting allegiances. Scientists who are complicit in damaging or unethical behavior, such as Isobel in Always North, or the genetic engineers of Unnatural, can lose audience sympathy, leading readers and viewers to root for the bears by proxy. Alternately, animals who are perceived as suffering from human action, or who are trying to protect their young, can elicit audience sympathy even when they attack innocent humans, which indicates that compassion and circumstance can both overcome any latent sort of species loyalty . . . at least on a limited basis. That basis is admittedly affected somewhat by genre, and by the potential for damaging real life encounters with polar bears.
There’s sympathy for the refugee bear while she is penning political memoirs, or being marginalized even further by bureaucratic red tape, but that sympathy, as the representation of the bears becomes more realistically horrific, is likely to wane, and the speculative polar bear risks being seen, instead, as a monstrous harbinger of invasion. Arguably, the more visceral the interaction between human and polar bear, and the more unwelcome that interaction is, relates to human culpability: interactions that are a reminder of the responsibility for climate change may well be those that paint the refugee bears in the best—or the worst—possible light. Jarrett’s Snowball, for instance, is simultaneously both pitiable and absolutely horrific.
The challenge for speculative fiction writers, then, is one of competing truths and preexisting bias. How we choose to navigate the consequences of our actions, and how we choose to present those who suffer the consequences of climate change, may ultimately be sign-posted by our creative reactions to the polar bear. It is a vulnerable and terrifying migrant, and one whose eventual refugee status we may well have to learn to live with. Whether we interpret that status as terrifying, as sympathetic, or as some complex in-between is something that remains to be seen . . . or to be read.
1 - Linda J. Gormezano and Robert F. Rockwell. “What to eat now? Shifts in polar bear diet during the ice‐free season in western Hudson Bay.” Ecology and Evolution, 3.10 (2013): 3509–3523.
2 - Brock Bastian, et al. “When closing the human-animal divide expands moral concern: The importance of framing.” Social Psychological and Personality Science, 3.4(2012): 421–429.
3 - Catherine Macdonald and Julia Wester, “Public perceptions of the hybridization of polar (Ursus maritimus) and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos horribilis).” Human Dimensions of Wildlife, 24.3 (2019): 199–216.
4 - Andrew E. Derocher, et al. “Rapid ecosystem change and polar bear conservation.” Conservation Letters, 6.5 (2013): 368–375.
Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She has a PhD in science communication, and is currently occupied writing climate fiction and writing about urban ecology. She’s won four Sir Julius Vogel awards, and was the 2020 writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, was published in 2021 by Stelliform Press.