Remember that video of an emaciated
Baffin Island Somerset Island polar bear that went viral last December?1 In an unexpected follow-up (“Starving-Polar-Bear Photographer Recalls What Went Wrong“; National Geographic, August 2018 issue), photographer Cristina Mittermeier makes some astonishing admissions that might just make you sick.
It turns out they didn’t just come across the dying bear the day it was filmed: it was spotted at least two days earlier by Paul Nicklen. He must have had a satellite phone with him when he saw the bear but the only call he made was to his film crew — he made no attempt to find a local conservation officer to euthanize the bear, which would have been the right thing to do.
ADDED July 27 2018: Calling a conservation officer to euthanize the bear would have been the right thing to do not only out of compassion (and to know the cause of illness, because a necropsy would have been done), but because a starving bear is especially dangerous: it would have been a potential danger to any unsuspecting person who set foot on the island (he was strong enough to swim away, so was probably strong enough to kill a child, if not an adult).
The bear’s emaciated, near-death stagger2 was simply too tantalizing to pass up (video needs action: an emaciated dead bear would not been nearly as effective). Mittermeier claims they knew when they filmed the bear that he was sick or injured, but Nicklon presented it as an effect of climate change regardless. Mittermeier now says National Geographic simply “went too far” with their video caption (“This is what climate change looks like“), that she and Nicklan “lost control of the narrative.”
Actually, what they lost was their humanity.
Here are some excerpts (my bold):
“Photographer Paul Nicklen and I are on a mission to capture images that communicate the urgency of climate change. Documenting its effects on wildlife hasn’t been easy. With this image, we thought we had found a way to help people imagine what the future of climate change might look like. We were, perhaps, naive. The picture went viral—and people took it literally.
Paul spotted the polar bear a year ago on a scouting trip to an isolated cove on Somerset Island in the Canadian Arctic [August 2017]. He immediately asked me to assemble our SeaLegacy SeaSwat team. SeaLegacy, the organization we founded in 2014, uses photography to spread the message of ocean conservation; the SeaSwat team is a deployable unit of storytellers who cover urgent issues. The day after his call our team flew to an Inuit village on Resolute Bay. There was no certainty that we would find the bear again or that it would still be alive.
…Only when it lifted its head were we able to spot it lying on the ground, like an abandoned rug, nearly lifeless. From the shape of its body, it seemed to be a large male.
We needed to get closer; we boarded a Zodiac boat and motored to land. Strong winds covered our noise and smell. From the shelter of one of the empty buildings, we watched the bear. He didn’t move for almost an hour. When he finally stood up, I had to catch my breath. Paul had warned me about the polar bear’s condition, but nothing could have prepared me for what I saw. The bear’s once white coat was molted and dirty. His once robust frame was skin and bones. Every step that he took was pained and slow. We could tell he was sick or injured and that he was starving. We could see that he was probably in his last days.
I took photographs, and Paul recorded video.
When Paul posted the video on Instagram, he wrote, “This is what starvation looks like.” He pointed out that scientists suspect polar bears will be driven to extinction in the next century. He wondered whether the global population of 25,000 polar bears would die the way this bear was dying. …
National Geographic picked up the video and added subtitles. It became the most viewed video on National Geographic’s website—ever. … The mission was a success, but there was a problem: We had lost control of the narrative. The first line of the National Geographic video said, “This is what climate change looks like”—with “climate change” highlighted in the brand’s distinctive yellow. In retrospect, National Geographic went too far with the caption.
Perhaps we made a mistake not telling the full story—that we were looking for a picture that foretold the future.
We had sent a “gut-wrenching” image out into the world. We probably shouldn’t have been surprised that people didn’t pick up on the nuances we tried to send with it. Yet we were shocked by the response.”
Read the rest here.
What kind of people sit around for days knowing an animal is suffering an agonizingly slow death and do nothing but plan how to use that suffering animal to make money? Callous and self-absorbed people.
Not only did Nicklen and Mittermeier cold-bloodedly exploit a defenseless, suffering animal without a thought to ending its pain, they still think that what they did was noble and self-sacrificing (they were “on a mission”). They apparently think that their advocacy for climate change relieved them of the responsibility of being humane.
They still don’t understand that many people were as sickened by their lack of compassion as by the film footage itself. People were also angry that Nicklen and Mittermeier misrepresented the situation: by their own admission, they knew the bear was sick, yet peddled their images as climate change tragedy porn anyway.
Their response to the public backlash (“National Geographic went too far”) is laughable. They just don’t get it: their actions did real damage to their cause.
Bottom line: A polar bear needlessly died a slow, miserable death because of heartless climate change advocacy and it made the public angry.
1. The original reports on this incident stated the bear was found on (or near) Baffin Island, Nunavut (i.e., in the Baffin Bay polar bear subpopulation). However, it was eventually revealed that the location was actually Somerset Island, which is in the Lancaster Sound polar bear subpopulation, an area with one of the largests populations of bears in the Arctic.
2. As I pointed out in my State of the Polar Bear Report (Crockford 2018), cancer can cause the kind of profound muscle wasting exhibited by this polar bear. Muscle wasting is more than simply not having enough to eat: it is the body consuming itself, drawing on all energy reserves to try and fight the illness.
Crockford, S.J. 2018. State of the Polar Bear Report 2017. Global Warming Policy Foundation Report #29. London. pdf here.