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Short Story: The Lonely Polar Bear

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Here at Etsy, we believe that the story behind an object is often just as fascinating as the object itself. Short Stories is our series dedicated to telling the tales behind extraordinary pieces found or created by Etsy sellers.

Here’s Deb Noyes of StoriedEye with the tale behind her hauntingly beautiful photograph.

I’m a former zookeeper with mixed feelings about zoos. A few years ago, I wrote and photo-illustrated a young-adult book called One Kingdom: Our Lives with Animals (Houghton Mifflin, 2006) that explored the human-animal bond in myth, history, science, and story.

I was shooting black-and-white film at the time, and two big themes in the book are emotional intelligence in animals and the ways we anthropomorphize them for our own purposes, so I settled on close-cropped emotional portraits. I wanted to focus on each subject as an individual. But isolating them from their environments (most were photographed in zoos) later made me feel that I’d cheated somehow, sacrificing truth for beauty, especially after I saw the work of Britta Jaschinski, a photographer who doesn’t flinch from what captivity really looks like.

It’s been a while, but I’m 99% sure this bear was photographed in Oregon Zoo, about three years after One Kingdom came out. There’s nothing subtle about the picture. I caught him in a still moment, and the environment says it all. I didn’t have global warming or the plight of his species on the brain at the time, but you can certainly view this “lonely” bear — adrift on his concrete floe — as a metaphor for what’s happening. Zoos are often referred to as “arks,” a last refuge for endangered species, and while they play a critical conservation role by educating the public, it’s an uneasy exchange, I fear. That fear, that feeling, is what’s relayed here.

Editor’s note: Due to technical constraints, we had to crop the photo for this post. Be sure to click through for the full view of Deb’s beautiful photo.

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3 Featured Comments

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  • SusanFaye

    Susan Faye from SusanFayePetProjects says: Featured

    A beautiful photo that speaks volumes about the overall plight of wildlife! Yet it also points out how a single photo may not tell the whole truth-- I have photos of the Portland zoo polar bears (there are two -- a brother and sister) happily frolicking, swimming, and interacting in their habitat. Which "reality" do I want to believe? Did I project my own sadness about the plight of wildlife onto Deb's beautiful image? Are these two bears happier and more likely to survive at the zoo than in their disappearing habitat in the wild? Great food for thought.

    2 years ago

  • JanJat

    Catherine from JanJat says: Featured

    Hauntingly beautiful. It reaches into my soul and pulls at my heart. Zoos can be an incredible resource for good by unfortunately there is always a trade off and those who favor profit over conservation. It is our responsibly to care for this planet and this photo captures just how delicate that balance truly is.

    2 years ago

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from FireHorseVintageHQ says: Featured

    What a sad and beautiful photograph. I applaud zoos that are conserving endangered species, but, if only all wild animals could be protected in their native environments, the world would be a better place.

    2 years ago

  • MegansMenagerie

    Megan from MegansMenagerie says:

    Awwww...he does look lonely. Though he looks sad it's a beautiful photograph.

    2 years ago

  • kathyjohnson3

    Kathy Johnson from kathyjohnson3 says:

    What a beautiful picture! The photographer captured the essence of this gorgeous creature!

    2 years ago

  • ShoeClipsOnly

    kathy johnson from ShoeClipsOnly says:

    Gorgeous pictures! Congratulations!

    2 years ago

  • LivingVintage

    LivingVintage from LivingVintage says:

    Gorgeous picture!

    2 years ago

  • aostudio9

    Adrienne from aostudio9 says:

    Stunning and insightful!

    2 years ago

  • PolishMeFreddy

    Alfredo Ramos from PolishMeFreddy says:

    Thank You for sharing your story. I'm a huge fan of polar bears and the one in your photograph does look extremely lonely.

    2 years ago

  • somsstudiosupplies

    Som from somsstudiosupplies says:

    Haunting picture!! Zoos are arks indeed and it is our responsibility to take care of the rest of God's creatures.

    2 years ago

  • unusualumbrella

    Lindi M. Harden from unusualumbrella says:

    That is an amazing photo. This article almost made me cry! It's so sad that things have come to this.

    2 years ago

  • QueenofCuffs

    mary from QueenofCuffs says:

    Deb of StoriedEye has such a way with stories and the theme behind her work. A true artist storyteller that draws you in to the subject. Recently took part in a team challenge with one of her images and the depth of story sang out !!

    2 years ago

  • CelesteCraft

    Celeste from CelesteCraft says:

    I agree with what I believe the writer is saying: When we anthropomorphize, we are projecting our own emotions into what we perceive the animal to be feeling. Great art often allows us that connection, the opportunity to see ourselves in teh subject and feel _with_ it.

    2 years ago

  • MuseandMurse

    MuseandMurse says:

    Beautiful, heartbreaking capture. Lovely art.

    2 years ago

  • maggiesraggedyinn

    Mary Robertson from MaggiesInn says:

    What a beautiful picture and what a story that bear could tell us about real life....

    2 years ago

  • lisaburkin

    Lisa Burkin from lisaburkin says:

    what a stunning photo!

    2 years ago

  • ThreeBarDGifts

    Monica from ThreeBarDGifts says:

    Beautiful shot! The reflection and look in his eye has been captured for ever. Love it!

    2 years ago

  • SusanFaye

    Susan Faye from SusanFayePetProjects says: Featured

    A beautiful photo that speaks volumes about the overall plight of wildlife! Yet it also points out how a single photo may not tell the whole truth-- I have photos of the Portland zoo polar bears (there are two -- a brother and sister) happily frolicking, swimming, and interacting in their habitat. Which "reality" do I want to believe? Did I project my own sadness about the plight of wildlife onto Deb's beautiful image? Are these two bears happier and more likely to survive at the zoo than in their disappearing habitat in the wild? Great food for thought.

    2 years ago

  • odelay03

    odelay03 says:

    I was uncertain about clicking on this story because I knew this piece would stir up strong emotions. I am also mixed about zoos. I am literally crying over this picture, partially because of PMS but also due to the bear's composure and expression. I live in Brooklyn and frequent the Bronx Zoo. There is a polar bear there who breaks my heart. He/she is always pacing and seems distressed. I cannot go anywhere near this bear because I get heavy with sadness and the image stays in my mind. Am I projecting my own human feelings onto these bears? Perhaps. But I also know that animals can certainly feel and have heart and soul. Thanks for sharing your photo and thoughts.

    2 years ago

  • Meliorey

    Mercedes from Meliorey says:

    Incredibly beautiful photo! I'm very sorry beautiful bear that you're not free!

    2 years ago

  • WildRumpusKnitting

    Jessica from WildRumpusKnitting says:

    A beautiful photo that shows the grace and quiet "humanity" of animals. If we only knew what they were thinking...

    2 years ago

  • leeannasjewerybox

    Leeanna from LeeannasJewelryBox says:

    The emotion is really captured in this photo. A picture really does say a 1000 words.

    2 years ago

  • Iammie

    iammie from iammie says:

    Beautiful!

    2 years ago

  • EdelweissPost

    Patrick from EdelweissPost says:

    Loneliness. For me, this photograph captures the essence of that most painful of all emotions.

    2 years ago

  • taunyacox

    Taunya Cox from TheBarefootBombshell says:

    Really just beautiful

    2 years ago

  • mazedasastoat

    mazedasastoat from mazedasastoat says:

    I have very mixed feeling about zoos... if only we lived in a world where "arks" weren't necessary to preserve the wildlife.

    2 years ago

  • AcrossLeather

    Lawrence Carter from AcrossLeather says:

    Extraordinary photograph reminded me of my own life. Being a part of etsy's family has shed brighter days for me though. I wasn't gonna write anything but figured I'd share a moment in time.

    2 years ago

  • hasincla

    hasincla from travelwanderings says:

    Beautiful photo! Although we will *never* know what this bear is thinking (or really any animal for that matter) we can imagine what his expression would mean on a human face.

    2 years ago

  • jamasters

    Jess Masters from RefinedRock says:

    amazing-priceless-thought provoking

    2 years ago

  • SheppardHillDesigns

    David and Celeste from SheppardHillDesigns says:

    It's tragic, what humanity has done to animals, both in deed and negligence. Zoos have become the ark of species that we are crowding out or killing off, but what a sad tradeoff for those who should be in the wild.

    2 years ago

  • admirerofdreams

    admirerofdreams from admirerofdreams says:

    If this is the Oregon zoo, I have been to this zoo and have seen this polar bear. He seems very lonely and anxious (though I am not an animal expert). He had lost a lot of his fur (you could clearly see patches of his black skin) and was continuously walking backwards around a rock formation. Zoos are a mixed bag for a lot of reasons. I am positive most zoos are aimed at helping animals and educating the public, and that is a great work. It is just hard to watch an animal looking lonely or in distress; I think it personifies them and reminds us of our own feelings too.

    2 years ago

  • iamshop

    iam shop from iAMshop says:

    love u!!!

    2 years ago

  • CraftyWoolFelt

    Claudia from CraftyWoolFelt says:

    The photography is gorgeous... but sad at the same time =( poor little lonely Polar Bear ♥

    2 years ago

  • GoldenSpiralDesigns

    Lola Ocian from GoldenSpiralDesigns says:

    Brilliant and moving! I'm looking forward to checking out your book. Thanks for sharing!

    2 years ago

  • unastigsdottir

    Una Stigsdottir from Unaberries says:

    my hubby and i wanted to play a concert for the animals in the nuerenberg zoo now i feel really bad bout not having prioritized that at the time. Next time ill just whip my guitar out. Love from Iceland.

    2 years ago

  • lapisbeach

    Lauren from lapisbeach says:

    Awwww- your photo is beautiful, but I am saddened by the thoughts it provokes.I hope this poor guy is fairing well at the zoo;(

    2 years ago

  • FoxyGloves23

    Marie Cashin from MEmbroideries says:

    Beauty, and sadness at once. hope for healing

    2 years ago

  • auntjanecan

    Jane Priser from JanePriserArts says:

    Very beautiful photography. The polar bear photo is heat-breakingly haunting.

    2 years ago

  • LineaLina

    Susanne Major from LineaLina says:

    I can't believe it's a photo. Amazing!

    2 years ago

  • 24pm

    PM dolls from 24PM says:

    OME Cute!!

    2 years ago

  • pinksnakejewelry

    pinksnakejewelry from pinksnakejewelry says:

    Very Haunting Photo!!!! Have very mixed feelings about zoos too.

    2 years ago

  • busterandboo

    Buster and boo from busterandboo says:

    Heartbreaking. Why don't they another polar bear with him? We have horses, they are herd animals. They are frantic without each other. I will never separate them.

    2 years ago

  • busterandboo

    Buster and boo from busterandboo says:

    Heartbreaking. Why don't they have another polar bear with him? We have horses, they are herd animals. They are frantic without each other. I will never separate them.

    2 years ago

  • JanJat

    Catherine from JanJat says: Featured

    Hauntingly beautiful. It reaches into my soul and pulls at my heart. Zoos can be an incredible resource for good by unfortunately there is always a trade off and those who favor profit over conservation. It is our responsibly to care for this planet and this photo captures just how delicate that balance truly is.

    2 years ago

  • DewyMorningVintage

    DewyMorningVintage from DewyMorningVintage says:

    I LOVE Animals with a passion but I never visit a zoo because most of the animals there seem so sad. I will never forget the lonely black bear I saw at a zoo once in his concrete enclosure, he looked sooo sad and lonely and followed my gaze for a long while. It was too much for me. I do know zoos do good as well but I just can't take seeing animals in cages and not in their natural environment. The photograph took me back to that lonely black bear. The photograph is beautiful in a haunting way. Her other photographs/art works are equally stunning too. Thank you for sharing.

    2 years ago

  • ESTATENOW

    VINTAGE NOW from ESTATENOW says:

    Cuteness...I love this story and the photos, thanks for sharing it with ALL of us.

    2 years ago

  • minouette

    Ele from minouette says:

    This makes a great short story and I appreciate the considered commentary about the role of zoos, the nature of animals and our relationship with them, as well as the photo itself, and the role of the photographer (and the question of the value of truth and beauty).

    2 years ago

  • PrayerNotes

    Prayer Notes by Cynthia from PrayerNotes says:

    He does look sad and lonely. I just can't visit zoos... I just imagine myself being caged, with no song... The photo is beautiful. ~Cynthia

    2 years ago

  • claudiadelrio

    Yaya from Liukenko says:

    Poor little guy.

    2 years ago

  • vinylclockwork

    Scott from vinylclockwork says:

    I'm about an hour away from the San Diego Zoo, the wild animal park, and Sea World those places help out a lot Gotta love the Polar Bear

    2 years ago

  • reginamiles1

    Regina from ChainAndCluster says:

    Ugh, I agree with many of the above posts. Haunting yet beautiful photograph.

    2 years ago

  • reginamiles1

    Regina from ChainAndCluster says:

    Haunting yet beautiful photo...

    2 years ago

  • sandrostumpo

    Sandro Stumpo from GalleryDiModa says:

    First off great photo. I have mixed feelings about zoos. On one hand the poor animal is in captivity. But on the other hand a lot of endangered species are safer in the zoo because of all the illegal hunting. Reminds me of dogs expressions when they are sad.

    2 years ago

  • butikonline83

    Hendri . from butikonline83 says:

    This article gives the light in which we can observe the reality. this is very nice one and gives indepth information. thanks for this nice article

    2 years ago

  • TheBeautyofBoredom

    Gracie from TheBeautyofBoredom says:

    Sounds like an interesting book, I may have to check it out. I'm an animal person, and the relationships between humans and animals is very interesting to me. I also have mixed feelings about zoos...in one aspect, people might feel bad about caging them up, as they are wild, not domesticated animals. In another it might be they only safe place for them, especially if they are endangered.

    2 years ago

  • lovelyfeverboutique

    Jessica from LovelyFever says:

    What a hanuntingly beautiful image. The emotion of lonliness is so vividly captured in this photo. I was able to take a look at the seller's shop and was very impressed with her art :)

    2 years ago

  • CharmedByWine

    Mary from CharmedByWine says:

    absolutely beautiful photo.

    2 years ago

  • LoveButtons

    Julia K Walton from FireHorseVintageHQ says: Featured

    What a sad and beautiful photograph. I applaud zoos that are conserving endangered species, but, if only all wild animals could be protected in their native environments, the world would be a better place.

    2 years ago

  • choochoopretty

    choochoopretty from choochoopretty says:

    I have also struggled with how I feel about zoos. I have seen this polar bear, and the enclosure is not very big! I think most of the animals need way bigger spaces, like the elephants, they deserve at least a few acres of grass.

    2 years ago

  • myvintagecrush

    Kathleen from myvintagecrush says:

    Wow.. stunning. I have a hard time with zoo's too. On one hand sad, the other necessary..

    2 years ago

  • samtait

    Sam Tait from WhiteoakGallery says:

    I love nature and all things beautiful, and although this photo invokes emotions of sadness in me for the lonely polar bear, it reveals an unspoken beauty of the bear and its surroundings—magnificent photo!

    2 years ago

  • browniequilts

    Amy Brown from BrownieGifts says:

    what an amazing photo! It does however show the plight of the polar bear. I work for coca/cola and coke is working with the world wildlife fund to help protect the arctic home of its beloved icon. Thanks to all who help support this effort!

    2 years ago

  • BaxCatandCo

    Kelly from BaxCatandCo says:

    This photo is so powerful to me from my screen. Thank you for sharing this, and the story behind it. I am an animal lover, and believe in their ability to think and feel. Love the stillness, simplicity, and contemplation portrayed with this polar bear here. Thank you

    2 years ago

  • Laribelle

    Larissa Pelletterio from MythMirrorMask says:

    Beautiful. Haunting. Solitary and Sad. What a poignant shot of such a majestic creature.

    2 years ago

  • aressa

    aressa from OriginalBridalHanger says:

    Love the collection of photos...Serene...

    2 years ago

  • LaECLECTICa

    LaECLECTICa from Laeclectica says:

    Interesting blog post!

    2 years ago

  • dnoyes

    Deb Noyes from StoriedEye says:

    I just want to thank you all for these incredibly thoughtful comments. It's gratifying to know that my lonely bear has inspired such important and timely conversation about animal welfare and conservation. Topics dear to many hearts -- that's clear. Thanks again.

    2 years ago