I saw my first polar bear of the trip before I even boarded my flight from Chicago to Winnipeg. Submerged in water up to its snout, it stared at me from a World Wildlife Fund poster hanging by the men's bathroom in Concourse F. Beneath the photo were the words "Be the voice for those who have no voice."
This is the way most Americans today experience polar bears: as a political symbol first and a flesh-and-blood animal second. That's partially because polar bears are natural spokes-animals for the effects of climate change: they're the Arctic's most iconic creature, and (to some people, from a safe distance) cute.
But it's impossible to talk about polar bears' potency as an emblem without mentioning the case of Charles Monnett. Monnett, a biologist for the Department of the Interior and author of a controversial study on polar bears, was cleared of charges of scientific misconduct by federal investigators in September, ending a six-year tussle between the scientist and the agency that employs him.