It's International Polar Bear Day. Why are humans so wild about fur? (+video)
What is it about polar bears – and other furry animals – that makes them so appealing to us hairless apes, both as icons of environmentalism and as high-status clothing?
AP Photo/Wildlife Conservation Society, Julie Larsen Maher
What would it feel like to hobnob with a friendly polar bear? Would its thick fur be coarse, or soft? Would it be doughy and pot-bellied, or ropy with muscle?
We all know that polar bears are toothy seal-killers who'd be unlikely to grant us a romp. But something about their shaggy, trunk-like legs, their tufted pigeon toes, and their round ears makes them irresistible – and today no less than usual, as celebrations of International Polar Bear Day send their images fluttering through the media.
What is it about fleecy bodies that makes the fangiest of carnivores – and even their lifeless pelts – so beguiling to humans?
Perhaps dogs and cats are the answer. The past fifteen years have seen a proliferation of research into these animal's co-evolution with humans – which has taken place over many millenniums of absent-minded stroking, encouraged by the occasional lick. Friendly dogs with a knack for reading humans survived to bear more puppies because of the snack-bearing relationships they formed, goes the theory. And nomadic humans with good instincts for cross-species communication, benefited from the protection of barking sentries. Could it be that a penchant for silky ears gave our ancestors a slight edge over their more anthropocentric neighbors?
"Human life ways changed significantly in association with dogs," wrote Donna Haraway, a University of California Santa Cruz professor of the history of consciousness, in her 2003 essay, The Companion Species Manifesto. "Flexibility and opportunism are the name of the game for both species, who shape each other throughout the still ongoing story of co-evolution."
Of course, the human fondness for fur is sometimes just skin deep. Inuit people nap against the warm bellies of living reindeer, and they also bundle themselves against Arctic cold with fur clothing stripped from the same animals. It's not hard to imagine the immense benefits that furless early humans would have enjoyed, upon learning to associate a wooly animal pelt – dead or alive – with comforting warmth.
The ancient tradition of wearing other animals' pelts has evolved new meanings in modern urban cultures: fur coats often carry both the prestige of high class and the stigma of cruelty. In fact, human-animal relationships have long extended beyond the realm of biology, into cultural spheres like fashion and totemism, which both involve animal furs.
"At the heart of totemism is imaginative and even felt identification with another species: by selective hunting rituals, clan- and/or gender-specific rites of passage, and sometimes vision quests, tribe members come to see the social and natural worlds as intimately bound up with each other," Ralph Acampora, a Hofstra University philosopher who specializes in animal studies, told the Monitor.
"Today, in a consumerist civilization," he continues, "it is not terribly surprising that some folks should find it suitable to seek status... in the purchase and parading of fur."
Polar bears' sympathetic personas have given them a uniquely iconic – if not totemic – international status. They quickly became uncontested ambassadors of the shrinking Arctic and the face of global warming – so clearly that in 2007, a leaked memo from the climate-skeptical George W. Bush administration directed U.S Fish & Wildlife Agency employees not to discuss "climate change, polar bears, and sea ice " at all, while traveling abroad for work.
Conservationists Nigel Leader-Williams and Holly T. Dublin wrote in 2000 about the vital role of irresistible animal like polar bears, within conservation movements. "Charismatic megavertebrates might be the best vehicles for conveying the entire issue of conservation to the public," they wrote.