While reading a book that is especially enjoyable, I literally revel in it, not wanting the book to ever end. Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye by author Zac Unger is just such a book. It is a fantastic read from start to finish – so much so that I wanted at least 500 more pages about what it is like to live surrounded by polar bears in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada. His writing style and sense of humor is very reminiscent of my favorite author, Bill Bryson.
If you didn’t know, Churchill has the distinction of being the “Polar Bear Capital of the World,” with as many polar bears milling in, about, and around town in the months of October and November as full-time residents (950-1,000 of each). Mix in about 10,000 tourists over this narrow, two-month migratory window and you have quite a unique and potentially dangerous situation. In fact, Mr. Unger eloquently understated this in his book, by calling it a case of, “Scare them and they will come!”
Churchill rests at the intersection of three distinct biomes (ecoregions); marine, Arctic tundra, and boreal forest. Crucial to polar bears in particular, the city/town (hard to call a place of <1,000 population a city) sits where the waters of Hudson Bay freeze-up the earliest, allowing the bears to venture onto the Arctic ice for winter seal hunting.
As an urban planner, Churchill’s mix of locals; throngs of camera-happy tourists; and large, carnivorous predators certainly presents some unique challenges that few, if any other communities have to address. But, over the years, as the book explores, Churchill, the Province of Manitoba, and Canada have successfully established a live-and-let-live set of policies/laws/standards that allows both species to largely coexist in peace.
Is everything perfect? Of course not. You still have brainless tourists trying to get up close and personal with large carnivores; you still have busloads of tourists gawking over every yawn, scratch, or poop a bear makes; you still have debates among area scientists over global warming’s long-term impacts on the polar bears; and you still have naughty bears being temporarily jailed (yes jailed for lack of a better term) in holding cells and then flown by helicopter to the polar boondocks for release. Mr. Unger does a stellar job depicting all of these topics in the book.
Despite these problems, the fact that no polar bears have had to be killed in Churchill since 1983 speaks to the success of efforts like the Polar Bear Alert Program. On average, this hotline literally rings up more than 220 calls per year (mostly in the two-month migratory period). Unfortunately, there is no such hotline for bears to call regarding pesky, annoying, and stupid humans.
Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye is hilarious, thoughtful, poignant, informative, and very entertaining. Author Zac Unger does a great job of not mincing words when necessary, and he clearly calls out those who are paradoxical or hypocritical. It is easily my favorite book read in 2014. My only gripe (and it’s a small one) is the book does not have an index, but when a book is as good as this one, I’ll get over it. Enjoy!