GUS, THE LONELY POLAR BEAR (True Story)Enjoy!
The New York Times
July 2, 2011
The Lonely Polar Bear
By DIANE ACKERMAN
MY heart goes out to Gus, the famously neurotic polar bear in the Central Park Zoo, who used to swim endless laps around his pool. He’d dive to the bottom in a froth of bubbles, surge across and then surface like a bear obsessed. He’d backstroke to the other side, and with great paws splashing, dive down to the bottom and circle around again. Some wags called him the “bipolar bear,” but most zoo-goers sensed that he felt bored, pent-up, out of his element and depressed.
A high-profile animal psychologist, called in by zoo officials, began treating Gus in 1994 with toys, games, more challenging mealtimes and a better designed habitat. Soon Gus seemed like his old self again, lounging and playing with his longtime companion, Ida.
But when Ida died recently from liver disease at the age of 25, Gus grew listless, slouching around his habitat and swimming little, obviously confused and greatly disturbed by her disappearance.
In the wild, male polar bears tend to be loners, who wander long distances through sketchy weather and over shape-shifting ice, with drifting pack ice as home. They go with the floe. But for 24 years, Ida was a pal with whom Gus cavorted and related to in countless ursine ways.
Strangers when they met, they nonetheless had much in common, including sheer tonnage. Surrounded by jabbering monkeys (us), they alone fathomed one another right down to their inner seasons, including the annual lethargy of “walking hibernation,” when polar bears chill out and become less animated, but don’t sleep the months away like other bears. Gus’s array of highly evolved gestures, sounds, skills and moods found its match in Ida.
All the rough and tumble of wet fur and snouts, the weightiness and float, the nubby nonskid (think spa-slipper) feet, and exquisite sense of smell, provided a sensory oasis that polar bears in the wild not only respond to but pursue with a fervor we humans might call passionate longing. Small matter if “passionate” and “longing” are only an unconscious hormonal tugging in the cells. It drives polar bears and other animals with a fierce impetuosity equal to our own.
Gus probably misses Ida’s familiar scent, since polar bears are wizards of smell who will march over ice ridges for 40 miles to reach prey they’ve whiffed, can tell which way a human went 14 hours before, and follow a breeding female simply by sniffing her tracks.
Many animals have singular personalities, preferences and idiosyncrasies. When they play together, they reveal different aspects of their temperaments, just as we do with friends and loved ones. So when Ida died, Gus not only lost his old mate, he lost those parts of himself that related to irretrievable parts of her. Could a new friend, welcome and distracting as one might be, fully replace the longtime bond he had with Ida?
We may never find out. The zoo is not likely to provide Gus with a new sidekick or mate. Wild polar bears are protected, so zoos must buy, barter or finagle bears from other zoos, where, because they’re not plentiful breeders, they’re prized and scarce. Also, at 25, Gus is elderly by bear standards. A lucky polar bear might live to 30 in captivity. So even if the zoo provides him with a new companion, she in turn could soon become the bereaved.
It shouldn’t surprise us that zoo visitors commiserate with Gus, because humans have always admired polar bears. To the Greenlanders, they’re revered as Masters of Helping Spirits; to the Lapps, they’re Old Men in Fur Coats. To New Yorkers, they’re a vision of the wild among us, emissaries from an Arctic realm most of us will never visit, a reminder of nature’s sublime strangeness and beauty.
People speak of Gus’s grief as if it were anomalous. But what if it’s just part of a large suite of ancient urges and instincts we share with hordes of other animals?
A 2005 study of elephant grief, reported in the Royal Society journal Biology Letters, confirmed what experts have long sworn, that elephants pay homage to their fallen, visiting the remains of even long-dead relatives, and gently turning over the bleached bones with trunk or foot. Biologists tell of gorillas banging their chests with yowls of anguish during a wake for a fallen friend, of sea lions wailing when their babies have been mutilated by killer whales, of grief-stricken monkey mothers carrying dead infants around for days, of geese singing both halves of a duet when their partners have died.
We share many of our motives, feelings and instincts with other animals — fear, curiosity, sexual desire, hunger, social contact, defensiveness, hoarding and saving behaviors, status seeking, dominance, attachment and protectiveness, appeasement and submissive behaviors, family loyalty, depression, duplicity — to name just a few.
ONE summer, with the late, wonderful entomologist Thomas Eisner, I taught a course called “Love, Truth and Beauty” at Cornell. Tom taught it from the insect perspective, I from the human, but both were essentially the same. Insects give the equivalent of engagement rings, check a suitor’s bank balance, can be femme fatales, etc. What we call a “dinner date” other animals regard as “courtship feeding.” One person’s quest for knowledge is another animal’s exploratory curiosity. We leave home longing to be footloose and free; another animal may depart in search of resources, stimuli or a mate.
I’m not suggesting other animals share our mental fantasia. Alas, evolution doesn’t allow one species to travel fully into the mind of another. We see differently, hear differently, taste differently. Yet, to our credit, humans do try to understand the ways of lonely polar bears. We are deeply compassionate beasts. True, humans also wage wars and prey on one another, but most people can, and often do, feature the best of their animal nature while rising above the worst. We witness Gus’s grief and taste our own memories of love, loss and loneliness. Our wild heart goes out to him.
Something deep inside us remembers being accompanied by other animals. Even indoors, we surround ourselves with pet companions who help bridge the apparent no-man’s-land between us and Nature, between our ape-hood and civilization. However, a dog on a leash is not really tamed by its owner. It’s a two-way tether. The owner also extends through the leash that part of his personality which is pure dog, the part which just wants to eat, sleep, bark, mate and wet the ground in joy. Feeling compassion for other animals, whether it’s Fido or Gus, helps us tune in to the animal parts of ourselves that we know and love, bearish at times as we may seem.#