Selected for common reading at Onondaga Community College

“A moving story of abandonment, love, and survival against the odds.”—Dr. Jane Goodall
 
The heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of an abandoned polar bear cub named Nora and the humans working tirelessly to save her and her species, whose uncertain future in the accelerating climate crisis is closely tied to our own

Six days after giving birth, a polar bear named Aurora got up and walked away from her den at the Columbus Zoo, leaving her tiny squealing cub to fend for herself. Hours later, Aurora still hadn’t returned. The cub was furless and blind, and with her temperature dropping dangerously, the zookeepers entrusted with her care felt they had no choice: They would have to raise one of the most dangerous predators in the world by hand. Over the next few weeks, a group of veterinarians and zookeepers worked around the clock to save the cub, whom they called Nora.

Humans rarely get as close to a polar bear as Nora’s keepers got to their fuzzy charge. But the two species have long been intertwined. Three decades before Nora’s birth, her father, Nanuq, was orphaned when an Inupiat hunter killed his mother, leaving Nanuq to be sent to a zoo. That hunter, Gene Agnaboogok, now faces some of the same threats as the wild bears near his Alaskan village of Wales, on the westernmost tip of the North American continent. As sea ice diminishes and temperatures creep up year after year, Agnaboogok and the polar bears—and everyone and everything else living in the far north—are being forced to adapt. Not all of them will succeed.

Sweeping and tender, The Loneliest Polar Bear explores the fraught relationship humans have with the natural world, the exploitative and sinister causes of the environmental mess we find ourselves in, and how the fate of polar bears is not theirs alone.
Chapter 1

Abandoned

She weighed scarcely more than a pound, roughly the size of a squirrel. Her eyes and ears were fused shut. Her only sense of the world around her came from smell, and her nose led her in one direction: toward the gravity and heat of her mother, a six-hundred-pound polar bear named Aurora.

Their den was made of cinder block, painted white and illuminated by a single red bulb in the ceiling. The floor was piled high with straw. The air, heavy with captive musk and kept artificially cool to mimic the Arctic, was pierced periodically by the cries of Nora, a pink-and-white wriggling ball of polar bear, tucked into the folds of her mother’s fur.

The tiny cub slept a lot, waking only to nurse, which she did greedily and often, with a soft whir that sounded like a tiny outboard motor. She suckled even in her sleep, her curled tongue lapping at the air.

Around nine o’clock on the morning of Nora’s sixth day, Aurora rose, stretched, and ambled out of the den. The cub was completely reliant on her mom, alone and vulnerable without her. As the chilly air crept in around her, Nora cast her head from side to side, screeching as she searched for something familiar, something warm. When she found no answer to her cries, she began to wail.

Outside the denning compound, three women monitored what was happening. Zoo veterinarian Priya Bapodra peered at a grainy, red video—a live feed from inside the polar bear den—as a pixelated Nora squirmed on the screen in front of her. Zookeeper Devon Sabo took notes. Carrie Pratt, a curator, looked on. For five days, the women had worked in rotating shifts, keeping a twenty-four-hour watch on Nora, craning their necks to discern what was happening on the video monitors and pressing headphones to their ears, listening for any signs of distress.

When Nora was born, on November 6, 2015, she was the first polar bear cub to live more than a few days at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which had opened in 1927. The den where she spent her first days was nothing like where she would have been raised in the wild, but it was as close as humans could muster in the suburbs of central Ohio. Nora’s birth in that concrete den represented all the ways humans and polar bears were inextricably tangled—for better and for worse. To some, Nora would become the wild north, made approachable, an ambassador for a species few would ever see in the wild. To others, she was the physical embodiment of the political battle over whether humans were causing irreparable harm to the planet, a question settled by science long before her birth. Whether she liked it or not, she and her species had become the sad-eyed face of climate change. She represented the damage humans had done to the earth, and she offered the thinnest hope of setting things right.

But to the keepers in the trailer, she was not an ambassador or a symbol. Nora was a helpless cub who was in peril.

And so, at 8:55 a.m., as Aurora took one step away from Nora and then another, the women steeled their nerves and tried to stay calm. Aurora had left Nora alone before, but only for brief periods. In the wild, a mother polar bear never leaves the den, even to eat. The eight-year-old mother wandered down a hallway, past the food her keepers had left for her, and toward the other side of the enclosure. Sabo made a note in the log:

“Aurora gets up and goes into pool room.”

Soon after, phones around the zoo buzzed. An alert went out over a text message thread to the rest of the animal care team, letting them know something was amiss. Ten minutes passed. Maternal instincts are innate in animals, but Aurora appeared conflicted.

Bapodra kept an eye on the clock. Twenty minutes now.

As the time ticked by, the tension in the trailer grew. Nora’s cries reminded the keepers of their own children, only louder and more urgent. As long as her vocals were strong, they were willing to wait.

Most polar bear cubs born in captivity live less than a month. Only about a third survive to adulthood. When keepers are forced to raise the cubs themselves, the odds are worse. Cubs can’t regulate their temperature on their own. Without their mothers, they succumb to disease and infection. They suffer from malnutrition and bone issues because their mother’s milk is impossible to replicate. The keepers knew all that when they created Aurora’s birth plan, drafted long before she went into labor. The twenty-three-page document was kept in a binder in the denning compound, and each member of the team had a copy on their phone. The plan accounted for all conceivable scenarios, including pulling a cub from its mother. “It will not be possible to return the cubs to the female when their condition improves or they have been stabilized, as she will not accept them,” the plan read.

The women in the trailer knew that if they stepped in to help Nora, there would be no going back. The responsibility of raising the helpless cub would fall to them. Between them, the women had decades of experience hand-raising jungle cats, livestock, and primates. But none of them had ever raised a polar bear. There were only a handful of people in the world who had even tried.

At the one-hour mark, something had to be done. Sabo went into the compound, carrying more straw to coax the wandering mom back to her cub. She walked along the narrow path called the keepers’ alley and quietly dropped the straw next to the den where Nora lay crying.

Aurora didn’t respond.

Another hour went by and Sabo went into the denning compound again. This time she brought fish. On the text thread, Sabo relayed what was happening. Soon, other keepers showed up to watch. Questions swirled in their heads. Could something have driven Aurora from the den? What else could they do to encourage her to return? How long should they wait?

Three hours had gone by, and now the keepers gave Aurora a deadline: one more hour. If Nora appeared to weaken, they would swoop in sooner. None of them wanted to raise Nora themselves. Her odds would plummet the instant they plucked her from the den. But they didn’t want to stand by and watch her die, either. Left alone, her odds were zero. They grabbed a plastic bin and lined it with heated water bottles and blankets. Without her mother’s warmth, Nora had to be getting cold.

At 12:43 p.m., almost four hours after Aurora left the den, Nora’s cries weakened ever so slightly, and she looked sluggish. It was November 12, Bapodra’s birthday, and the veterinarian had plans with her husband that night. She called and told him to put the plans on hold.

It was time.
The Loneliest Polar Bear offers readers an adorable polar bear cub—and a roving, clear-eyed exploration of climate change and how the bears captured the public imagination.”Outside

“Excellent . . . Engaging . . . Part scientific history, part adventure tale.”Associated Press

“Wide-ranging and well-researched.”Science

“Kale Williams not only writes eloquently about little Nora and the dedication of the zoo staff—the ‘Nora Moms’ who save her life—but he also uses the tale as an entry point into important issues of our times: climate change that affects polar bears in the wild, the need for us to develop a more respectful relationship with the natural world, and the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.” —Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a UN Messenger of Peace

“The polar bear is a symbol of great majesty and beauty, but it’s also part of an ecosystem that includes some of the most resilient and remarkable people on earth. None of them deserve the trauma that climate change is now inflicting. This book tells the story of the companies that put our planet in this predicament, and how we might get out of it.”—Bill McKibben, New York Times bestselling author of Falter

“An informative and heartfelt portrayal of the Arctic in distress . . . This page-turner is sure to captivate animal lovers, nature enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a touching story.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Adroitly blending history, science, and good, old-fashioned storytelling, The Loneliest Polar Bear asks us to engage both our hearts and our minds as we reflect upon the existential threat posed by human-caused climate change.”—Michael E. Mann, author of The New Climate War

“An attention-grabber . . . ”Booklist (starred review)

“We know that polar bears are the canary in the climate change coal mine. But Williams goes further, expertly demonstrating the conflicting human and corporate interests that will come to affect every single one of us.”—Caitlin Doughty, New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

“Eye-opening . . . Few readers will be able to resist the charms of this feisty and strong-willed cub. . . . A well-written tribute to a creature whose struggle to survive is one of many calls to action to save our ailing planet.”Kirkus Reviews

“In telling the uniquely moving story of Nora, a polar bear born at a zoo, Kale Williams invites us to reflect on the planet we live on and our responsibility toward it.”—Frans de Waal, New York Times bestselling author of Mama’s Last Hug

“Heartrending.”Newsweek

“Williams has given us a timely and well-written story about climate change along with so much more: a primer on polar bear behavior, a balanced take on the politics of zookeeping, and an evocative report on life in an Inupiat village on the cusp of environmental disaster.”—Nate Blakeslee, New York Times bestselling author of American Wolf

“An absorbing, extensively researched book.”Library Journal
© Dave Killen
Kale Williams is a reporter at The Oregonian/OregonLive, where he covers science and the environment. A native of the Bay Area, he previously reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. He shares a home with his wife, Rebecca; his two dogs, Goose and Beans; his cat, Torta; and his step-cat, Lucas. View titles by Kale Williams

About

Selected for common reading at Onondaga Community College

“A moving story of abandonment, love, and survival against the odds.”—Dr. Jane Goodall
 
The heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful story of an abandoned polar bear cub named Nora and the humans working tirelessly to save her and her species, whose uncertain future in the accelerating climate crisis is closely tied to our own

Six days after giving birth, a polar bear named Aurora got up and walked away from her den at the Columbus Zoo, leaving her tiny squealing cub to fend for herself. Hours later, Aurora still hadn’t returned. The cub was furless and blind, and with her temperature dropping dangerously, the zookeepers entrusted with her care felt they had no choice: They would have to raise one of the most dangerous predators in the world by hand. Over the next few weeks, a group of veterinarians and zookeepers worked around the clock to save the cub, whom they called Nora.

Humans rarely get as close to a polar bear as Nora’s keepers got to their fuzzy charge. But the two species have long been intertwined. Three decades before Nora’s birth, her father, Nanuq, was orphaned when an Inupiat hunter killed his mother, leaving Nanuq to be sent to a zoo. That hunter, Gene Agnaboogok, now faces some of the same threats as the wild bears near his Alaskan village of Wales, on the westernmost tip of the North American continent. As sea ice diminishes and temperatures creep up year after year, Agnaboogok and the polar bears—and everyone and everything else living in the far north—are being forced to adapt. Not all of them will succeed.

Sweeping and tender, The Loneliest Polar Bear explores the fraught relationship humans have with the natural world, the exploitative and sinister causes of the environmental mess we find ourselves in, and how the fate of polar bears is not theirs alone.

Excerpt

Chapter 1

Abandoned

She weighed scarcely more than a pound, roughly the size of a squirrel. Her eyes and ears were fused shut. Her only sense of the world around her came from smell, and her nose led her in one direction: toward the gravity and heat of her mother, a six-hundred-pound polar bear named Aurora.

Their den was made of cinder block, painted white and illuminated by a single red bulb in the ceiling. The floor was piled high with straw. The air, heavy with captive musk and kept artificially cool to mimic the Arctic, was pierced periodically by the cries of Nora, a pink-and-white wriggling ball of polar bear, tucked into the folds of her mother’s fur.

The tiny cub slept a lot, waking only to nurse, which she did greedily and often, with a soft whir that sounded like a tiny outboard motor. She suckled even in her sleep, her curled tongue lapping at the air.

Around nine o’clock on the morning of Nora’s sixth day, Aurora rose, stretched, and ambled out of the den. The cub was completely reliant on her mom, alone and vulnerable without her. As the chilly air crept in around her, Nora cast her head from side to side, screeching as she searched for something familiar, something warm. When she found no answer to her cries, she began to wail.

Outside the denning compound, three women monitored what was happening. Zoo veterinarian Priya Bapodra peered at a grainy, red video—a live feed from inside the polar bear den—as a pixelated Nora squirmed on the screen in front of her. Zookeeper Devon Sabo took notes. Carrie Pratt, a curator, looked on. For five days, the women had worked in rotating shifts, keeping a twenty-four-hour watch on Nora, craning their necks to discern what was happening on the video monitors and pressing headphones to their ears, listening for any signs of distress.

When Nora was born, on November 6, 2015, she was the first polar bear cub to live more than a few days at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, which had opened in 1927. The den where she spent her first days was nothing like where she would have been raised in the wild, but it was as close as humans could muster in the suburbs of central Ohio. Nora’s birth in that concrete den represented all the ways humans and polar bears were inextricably tangled—for better and for worse. To some, Nora would become the wild north, made approachable, an ambassador for a species few would ever see in the wild. To others, she was the physical embodiment of the political battle over whether humans were causing irreparable harm to the planet, a question settled by science long before her birth. Whether she liked it or not, she and her species had become the sad-eyed face of climate change. She represented the damage humans had done to the earth, and she offered the thinnest hope of setting things right.

But to the keepers in the trailer, she was not an ambassador or a symbol. Nora was a helpless cub who was in peril.

And so, at 8:55 a.m., as Aurora took one step away from Nora and then another, the women steeled their nerves and tried to stay calm. Aurora had left Nora alone before, but only for brief periods. In the wild, a mother polar bear never leaves the den, even to eat. The eight-year-old mother wandered down a hallway, past the food her keepers had left for her, and toward the other side of the enclosure. Sabo made a note in the log:

“Aurora gets up and goes into pool room.”

Soon after, phones around the zoo buzzed. An alert went out over a text message thread to the rest of the animal care team, letting them know something was amiss. Ten minutes passed. Maternal instincts are innate in animals, but Aurora appeared conflicted.

Bapodra kept an eye on the clock. Twenty minutes now.

As the time ticked by, the tension in the trailer grew. Nora’s cries reminded the keepers of their own children, only louder and more urgent. As long as her vocals were strong, they were willing to wait.

Most polar bear cubs born in captivity live less than a month. Only about a third survive to adulthood. When keepers are forced to raise the cubs themselves, the odds are worse. Cubs can’t regulate their temperature on their own. Without their mothers, they succumb to disease and infection. They suffer from malnutrition and bone issues because their mother’s milk is impossible to replicate. The keepers knew all that when they created Aurora’s birth plan, drafted long before she went into labor. The twenty-three-page document was kept in a binder in the denning compound, and each member of the team had a copy on their phone. The plan accounted for all conceivable scenarios, including pulling a cub from its mother. “It will not be possible to return the cubs to the female when their condition improves or they have been stabilized, as she will not accept them,” the plan read.

The women in the trailer knew that if they stepped in to help Nora, there would be no going back. The responsibility of raising the helpless cub would fall to them. Between them, the women had decades of experience hand-raising jungle cats, livestock, and primates. But none of them had ever raised a polar bear. There were only a handful of people in the world who had even tried.

At the one-hour mark, something had to be done. Sabo went into the compound, carrying more straw to coax the wandering mom back to her cub. She walked along the narrow path called the keepers’ alley and quietly dropped the straw next to the den where Nora lay crying.

Aurora didn’t respond.

Another hour went by and Sabo went into the denning compound again. This time she brought fish. On the text thread, Sabo relayed what was happening. Soon, other keepers showed up to watch. Questions swirled in their heads. Could something have driven Aurora from the den? What else could they do to encourage her to return? How long should they wait?

Three hours had gone by, and now the keepers gave Aurora a deadline: one more hour. If Nora appeared to weaken, they would swoop in sooner. None of them wanted to raise Nora themselves. Her odds would plummet the instant they plucked her from the den. But they didn’t want to stand by and watch her die, either. Left alone, her odds were zero. They grabbed a plastic bin and lined it with heated water bottles and blankets. Without her mother’s warmth, Nora had to be getting cold.

At 12:43 p.m., almost four hours after Aurora left the den, Nora’s cries weakened ever so slightly, and she looked sluggish. It was November 12, Bapodra’s birthday, and the veterinarian had plans with her husband that night. She called and told him to put the plans on hold.

It was time.

Praise

The Loneliest Polar Bear offers readers an adorable polar bear cub—and a roving, clear-eyed exploration of climate change and how the bears captured the public imagination.”Outside

“Excellent . . . Engaging . . . Part scientific history, part adventure tale.”Associated Press

“Wide-ranging and well-researched.”Science

“Kale Williams not only writes eloquently about little Nora and the dedication of the zoo staff—the ‘Nora Moms’ who save her life—but he also uses the tale as an entry point into important issues of our times: climate change that affects polar bears in the wild, the need for us to develop a more respectful relationship with the natural world, and the ethics of keeping animals in captivity.” —Dr. Jane Goodall, DBE, founder of the Jane Goodall Institute and a UN Messenger of Peace

“The polar bear is a symbol of great majesty and beauty, but it’s also part of an ecosystem that includes some of the most resilient and remarkable people on earth. None of them deserve the trauma that climate change is now inflicting. This book tells the story of the companies that put our planet in this predicament, and how we might get out of it.”—Bill McKibben, New York Times bestselling author of Falter

“An informative and heartfelt portrayal of the Arctic in distress . . . This page-turner is sure to captivate animal lovers, nature enthusiasts, and anyone looking for a touching story.”Publishers Weekly (starred review)

“Adroitly blending history, science, and good, old-fashioned storytelling, The Loneliest Polar Bear asks us to engage both our hearts and our minds as we reflect upon the existential threat posed by human-caused climate change.”—Michael E. Mann, author of The New Climate War

“An attention-grabber . . . ”Booklist (starred review)

“We know that polar bears are the canary in the climate change coal mine. But Williams goes further, expertly demonstrating the conflicting human and corporate interests that will come to affect every single one of us.”—Caitlin Doughty, New York Times bestselling author of Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

“Eye-opening . . . Few readers will be able to resist the charms of this feisty and strong-willed cub. . . . A well-written tribute to a creature whose struggle to survive is one of many calls to action to save our ailing planet.”Kirkus Reviews

“In telling the uniquely moving story of Nora, a polar bear born at a zoo, Kale Williams invites us to reflect on the planet we live on and our responsibility toward it.”—Frans de Waal, New York Times bestselling author of Mama’s Last Hug

“Heartrending.”Newsweek

“Williams has given us a timely and well-written story about climate change along with so much more: a primer on polar bear behavior, a balanced take on the politics of zookeeping, and an evocative report on life in an Inupiat village on the cusp of environmental disaster.”—Nate Blakeslee, New York Times bestselling author of American Wolf

“An absorbing, extensively researched book.”Library Journal

Author

© Dave Killen
Kale Williams is a reporter at The Oregonian/OregonLive, where he covers science and the environment. A native of the Bay Area, he previously reported for the San Francisco Chronicle. He shares a home with his wife, Rebecca; his two dogs, Goose and Beans; his cat, Torta; and his step-cat, Lucas. View titles by Kale Williams