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SPIRIT BEAR or POLAR BEAR

March 10, 2010

One of the highlights at the Opening Ceremonies of the Vancouver Winter Olympics was a giant, glittering puppet of a standing bear. The bear was in the Hymns of the North segment of the program; it rose from the stadium floor and towered over the performers on a simulated ice floe. Because of its white color and the arctic landscape, some thought it was supposed to be a polar bear. But the puppet lacked the long neck and sleeker head of a polar bear.
In fact, on the TV channel that I was watching the announcer claimed the puppet was meant to represent a Spirit Bear, a subspecies of the smaller American black bear more indigenous to British Columbia, the host province. And its pinkish translucence did make it look like a Spirit Bear.
The Spirit Bear (also called a ghost, spectral or, more scientifically, the Kermode bear) is not an arctic bear. It inhabits the temperate rainforests of British Columbia’s northern and central coasts, most particularly Gribbell and Princess Royal Islands. The Spirit Bear is rare and elusive, numbering as few as perhaps 500 individuals. Because the bear population in the area is so confined, the recessive gene for its white or cream color is more likely to manifest itself, but only 10 % of the bears in the area are white. Brother and sister bears in the area can be black, brown, reddish, or even orangey-yellow.
Among the local First Nations tribes in the area the Spirit Bear is legendary as the last remnant of a prior ice age. Perhaps that’s where the mix-up came in the Olympics’ opening extravaganza. The Ceremony was noteworthy for its acknowledgement and inclusion of many of Canada’s First Nations cultures. Some explanation of the Spirit Bear’s importance to local cultures would have helped. Otherwise it just looked as if the Australian who put together the show was either geographically or anatomically deficient.

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