In The Loneliest Polar Bear (Crown, Mar.), journalist Williams studies the ties between polar bears, humans, and climate change.
What led you to the topic of polar bears?
I was working as a reporter for The Oregonian in 2016 when [polar bear cub] Nora was transferred to the zoo in Portland. Under normal circumstances, a baby polar bear arriving at the local zoo would not demand much more than a short blurb, but when we found out she had been abandoned by her mom and was hand-raised by zookeepers, it seemed clear there was a deeper story. That story became a five-part series, and the reporting for that series became the framework of this book.
How did you capture the devotion of the “Nora Moms” as they raised the newborn cub to adulthood?
With an experience like that—where they were 100% committed to this little bear for months on end with no guarantee she would survive—it’s certainly a challenge to get that level of intensity across to readers. I spent many hours interviewing them, to the point that I think they were beginning to get tired of me.
You consider the polar bear and its changing environs through the eyes of zookeepers, scientists, and Inupiat hunters in Alaska. Was this part of the original plan?
There were a few key areas I knew I wanted to expand on from the series, namely climate change science, the ethics of keeping animals in captivity, and how global warming is impacting people who live in the Arctic. That was about all I had for a plan, and the rest grew out of the research trips I made while writing the book.
Where did you travel?
I traveled to all the zoos where Nora has lived—in Ohio, Oregon, and Utah—and also made three trips to Wales, Alaska. It was very cold, 20-below, no hotel, no cell service.
You write that having polar bears in zoos brings attention to their plight, but also allude to zoos using them to draw larger crowds. You give both sides but don’t really take a stand. Why not?
That is a question I still wrestle with. On the whole, I’m not really sure if zoos are a net positive or a net negative. Many animals fare better, both physically and mentally, in the wild than they do in captivity. But some captive animals, polar bears for example, are such powerful draws to zoo-goers that their presence alone funds research that helps their wild counterparts. I don’t think there is a right answer for everyone—it’s an ethical question that people have to decide using their own moral compass—which is why I left it unanswered in the book.