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Exclusive: Mike Rowe Talks "Human Planet"

NOTE: My interview with Mike Rowe appears below a bunch of discussion of the documentary Human Planet. Jump to the "Interview" heading if that's what you're here for.

Human Planet premieres Sunday, April 10 in the US on Discovery. Two episodes air each night, running from 8-10pm EST on April 10, 17, and 24. Check your cable listings for more details, and set your DVRs -- again, this is a huge justification for why you bought a big shiny HDTV.

This time around, Mike Rowe will narrate the series. Most people know Rowe best as the host of Dirty Jobs on Discovery. But my favorite work of his was a stint hosting QVC in the early 90's. Rowe has a special kind of charm -- he's simultaneously an everyman, a pitchman, and a funnyman. His voice is a huge part of his appeal -- Rowe has the ability to intone opinions about pretty much anything, and his rich voice gives it insta-gravitas. He also makes a lot of jokes, making the whole gravitas situation complex and uncertain -- which is where the funny comes from.

So it was a pleasant surprise when I learned last week that Mike Rowe will narrate Discovery's version of Human Planet, their latest BBC co-produced mega-documentary. But why would Mike Rowe, a known wise-ass (albeit a beloved wise-ass with a great talent for voiceover), be narrating a serious documentary? I can't tell you why exactly this call was made, and I also can't tell you what it sounds like -- because the versions of the documentary I've seen are narrated by somebody else (somebody else who's American). To make things more complex, the BBC version was narrated by John Hurt. So there are at least three narrators involved in this thing, and the Rowe narration is a big question mark right now. He has done serious voiceover work before (lots of it), so he's capable of turning off the jokes. But part of what I love about his work is that jokey quality. There's not much room in this documentary for jokes. (Note: this is a very similar issue to The Donaghy Probletunity that arose when Alec Baldwin narrated Great Migrations: when you take a guy whose main gig involves jokey gravitas, how can you hear his narration as sincere?)

In past mega-documentaries, much has been made about the differences between the BBC and American versions' narrators. On both Planet Earth and Life, Sir David Attenborough provided the BBC narration. For the US versions, Sigourney Weaver voiced Planet Earth (capably, but not as well as Attenborough) and Oprah Winfrey did Life (to the real consternation of many fans). When the Blu-ray versions came out, I bought both of them -- with the Attenborough narration. So there's a lot riding on this narration; viewers really care about this stuff. I like Mike Rowe enough that I think his narration could rival Hurt's BBC narration of Human Planet. But we'll have to wait and see.

The final reason that Rowe's narration is such a big deal is that, frankly, Human Planet needs some narrative help. It's generally in the same vein as the previous mega-documentaries Planet Earth and Life, but this time the focus is on people, not nature. It's about how people live their daily lives under extreme conditions. And that's something Rowe has experience with, at least from his Dirty Job days.

The Problem of a Human Narrative

Here's the thing about Human Planet: the producers appears to have gotten their subjects to tell the audience that everything is gonna be okay. They wrap up each segment with the main documentary subject saying something about how he or she is grateful to have caught a whale, or survived a trek across a barren wilderness, or stolen meat from a lion, or caught a bat so his family could eat a bit of meat, and so on. Every segment has this weird wrap-up moment at the end, where it feels very much like the producers asked the subjects to tell us that they're happy with their lot in life, despite living in dangerous, destitute, or (at best) exotic situations. Sometimes these statements ring true, and you get a nice moment of resolution (there's nothing inherently wrong with many of these people's situation, and I'm not saying they should be unhappy because they're not living western lives) -- but frequently these wrap-up segments fall flat, and I found myself thinking: "Why do we need to wrap up these segments with such a tidy ending?" I can't comment on the producers' intent, but as a viewer, it felt formulaic to have all these people telling us that everything's cool in their lives. It would have been better just to cut to a wide shot and move on.

There's one particularly terrifying segment in the documentary in which disfigured sulphur miners (who are extracting sulphur from an active volcano, gravely injuring themselves in the process) bring their haul back to a weigh station to get paid. The miners talk about how they're glad to be able to feed their families, since -- and this is true -- the pay for the mining job is better than for other jobs. They need the work, they need the money to feed their families. The narrator tells us that the miners won't be able to do their mining jobs for long, because the sulphur takes such a toll on their health. We see the miners laboring without protective gear, burning their lungs with fumes that will make them sick, disfigured, or dead. (You can read a good writeup here of what this job is really like.) The problem with this segment in the documentary is that it then wraps up and moves on. The real human story here is the tragedy of these miners -- what happens to the old-timers? We don't get to see. What story are we shown instead? An incredibly beautifully photographed sequence showing men gathering sulphur from a volcano. So I'm sure this made sense to the producers, because it is certainly an extreme condition that's visually stunning (and it is -- let me be clear, the photography is insanely beautiful). However, the story of the humans here is much, much bigger than hauling sulphur up out of the pit. They deserve more thorough treatment, if this is supposed to be a documentary about them as people in extreme situations. Their extreme situation is not just mining, it's poverty. As it is, their plight is briefly mentioned, we get some sense that they have chosen to do the job because it pays well despite the danger, and, boom!, we're on to the next stunning segment. This just feels wrong.

UPDATE (13 April 2011): after watching the first few broadcast episodes, they seem to have been re-cut and differ from early screeners, removing some of my objections. There are still wrap-up moments at the end of segments, but we no longer see the subjects themselves saying corny things about how happy they are. Thank you, editors! Also, the Rowe narration is excellent.

What Human Planet Gets Right

This is the team that brought us Planet Earth and Life, both of which are fundamentally stunning exercises in documentary photography, and created on a scale that's almost unimaginable -- years of production spanning scores of locations. The HD photography here is just as beautiful as you'd expect. Also, the focus on people (despite the wrap-up segments) makes this documentary different from its predecessors in the series -- it's not a nature documentary, it's a documentary about people and their relationship with the natural world. This is smart, because it gives us opportunities to see what is fundamentally nature photography -- for example, a remarkable sequence in which an eagle is outfitted with a camera on its back and we get to see the eagle's-eye-view as she hunts (see clip above) -- but it also allows us to sit with the people who are training the eagle to hunt, and to understand their narrative.

In general, Human Planet does a good job of showing us how people live. In parts this feels like a documentary about hunting (since so many segments are specifically about killing animals for food), but then we see really interesting and bizarre stuff. My favorite example is the segment about a group of Buddhists living at an altitude where no trees grow, so there is no wood to burn in order to cremate their dead. So when a member of the group dies, the one non-Buddhist (stop reading if you're squeamish) chops up the body and feeds it to vultures. This is sort of horrifying (although we don't see graphic footage of the actual hacking, we do see the axe). But it's also a really good example of a practical challenge that a culture has figured out how to face. That's a good subject for a documentary, and it's handled well -- except, again, for the weird "circle of life" comments by the documentary subjects at the end of the segment.

The other remarkable aspect of Human Planet is its behind-the-scenes footage. I only saw a snippet of this, but found it fascinating -- the narrative of the filmmakers interacting with their subjects is just as interesting as seeing the subjects themselves doing their thing. So when the home video releases come out, you will want to check out the special features showing how this documentary was made -- it took years, and it took a shocking amount of work. And it's interesting to see the filmmakers explain how they do their thing.

Interview: Mike Rowe

From Flickr: The star and crew of "Dirty Jobs with Mike Rowe" showed up shortly after dawn to start the day's filming at Arthur R. Marshall Loxahatchee National Wildlife Refuge. Rowe was briefed on what to expect by USFWS biologists Jeremy Conrad and Lisa Jameson. Credit: Phil Kloer/USFWS

I couldn't resist sending Rowe some questions. I wasn't sure he'd have a chance to answer them in time for this review, but I'm glad he did -- I got them late last night, and appreciate Rowe taking time out of his schedule to tell me some jokes. I've loved his work, both the jokey stuff and his genuine concern for blue-collar workers (check out his podcast for some of this, or see pretty much any episode of Dirty Jobs). True to form, he was game, and replied with humor, despite what I assume is an insane production schedule at his day job. Imagine his deep, rich voice as he answers my dumb questions.

Higgins: John Hurt narrated the BBC broadcast of Human Planet.

Rowe: That's correct. The BBC version is also much longer than the American version. They did 8 hours, we're only doing 6. Studies have proven that British viewers are lot more patient than American viewers.

Higgins: So who's better, you or John Hurt?

Rowe: John Hurt is annoyingly good. Shockingly good, actually. When I watch him act, I am humbled. When I listen to him speak, I weep. And yet, I am thrilled and eager to usurp him whenever possible. Professional narration is a cruel and nasty business, and as this series clearly illustrates the most deserving characters don't always prevail.

Higgins: I remind you, Hurt played the crazy space bazillionaire in Contact AND Kane (the first guy to get an Alien on his face/bursting from his chest) in Alien.

Rowe: Right. But both of those performances pale next to his work in The Proposition. Best Australian western ever. Rent it. Watch it. Be amazed.

Higgins: Various websites claim you pitched a product called "Al Edwards Oatmeal."

Rowe: Yes, I've seen those sites as well. I've also seen websites that claim I'm replacing Regis Philbin and Charlie Sheen.

Higgins: Is this a real product or an internet prank?

Rowe: Al Edwards Oatmeal is very real and quite delicious when supplemented with an equal quantity of brown sugar and whiskey. However, I have no professional or gastronomical history with this particular product. (Interestingly, John Hurt has been the voice of Al Edwards Oatmeal for many, many years. I plan to replace him shortly.)

Higgins: Please describe why it's superior to other celebrity-endorsed oatmeals.

Rowe: All I can tell you for sure is that any oatmeal not endorsed by Wilfred Brimley is something I'd be willing to try. I've got nothing against Quaker Oats. And I have a great deal of respect for Wilfred's talent and his remarkable resume. Lately though, the angry grandfather thing has become a little frightening. I love a good curmudgeon, but this new level of grumpiness does little to stimulate my appetite.

Higgins: I assume you're aware of the popularity of YouTube videos showing your QVC hosting days.

Rowe: Yes. My finest hours. Thank you.

Higgins: My question is -- how were you able to be so loose with that gig?

Rowe: You mean aside from the oatmeal and whiskey? I guess the short answer is "exhaustion." QVC had no training program back in 1990. In those days they were desperate for people who could do the job, or at least pull off a fair impersonation of a home shopping host. So anyone capable of talking about a pencil for 5 minutes straight was immediately hired for a three month probationary period and sent to the graveyard shift where they either figured it out on their own or went up in flames. (Seriously, that was my audition. Look into a camera and talk about a pencil for 5 minutes.) To this day, the most honest and entertaining television I've ever seen featured new QVC hosts trying to figure out how to do their job in front of a live audience. I knew a guy that got so nervous he fainted three times on the air. And a woman who actually threw up on the fake diamonds as she was describing them. Too damn funny to make up.

Higgins: It seemed like you were totally aware you'd be fired as soon as anyone in management saw your segments.

Rowe: One of my first goals in home shopping was to be fired from home shopping, and I'm proud to say that was accomplished shortly after my debut. The truth is I never should have been hired in the first place. I auditioned to settle a bet, and accepted the offer out of a weird mix of professional curiosity and financial desperation. I was rehired however under some fairly extraordinary circumstances, and spent the next three years on the overnight shift, languishing under a kind of double secret probation. Most of that time was spent daring management to fire me again, which they eventually did. I can't blame them. I had a habit of falling asleep on the air, making fun of the products, and belittling callers. It was a miracle I made it as long as I did.

Higgins: So did you have some other job lined up or what?

Rowe: I've never had anything lined up in my life.

Higgins: Any plans to release more episodes of your podcast?

Rowe: Yeah. I'm gonna write down all the QVC stories and see if I can get John Hurt to read them. It's the least I can do.

And that's that. We'll have to see what Rowe does for Human Planet. I have faith that Rowe's narration will fundamentally change the experience of this documentary -- Mike Rowe isn't John Hurt; he's America's John Hurt.

Human Planet premieres on Sunday, April 10 in the US on Discovery. Two episodes air each night, running from 8-10pm EST on April 10, 17, and 24. Check your cable listings (and set your DVRs) for more details.

(Photo of Mike Rowe courtesy of Flickr user USFWS/Southeast, used under Creative Commons license.)

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Animals
25 Icy-Cool Facts About Polar Bears
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From starring in Coca-Cola ads to becoming the poster child for climate change, the polar bear is quite the high-profile species. Ursus maritimus is a fascinating animal that roams across the Arctic Circle through Norway, Russia, Canada, Greenland, and Alaska, and there's more to them than the adorable faces you see in children's books and advertisements. Here are 25 facts you should know about the polar bear:

1. THEY'RE THE LARGEST CARNIVORES ON LAND.

A polar bear walks across the snow at sunset.
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Polar bears can weigh more than 1300 pounds and span more than 8 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail, making them the largest carnivores to currently walk the Earth. (Though other bears can grow larger, like Alaska's 10-foot-long Kodiak bear, they're omnivorous, while polar bears prefer an all-meat diet.) The males far outweigh their female counterparts, who may only weigh between 330 and 650 pounds. In general, though, a bear's weight fluctuates significantly throughout the year, with some bears packing on 50 percent more body weight over the course of a successful hunting season, then losing it over the course of their long fasting months.

2. BUT TECHNICALLY, THEY'RE MARINE MAMMALS.

A shot from below of two polar bears swimming in clear blue water
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Because they spend so much of their lives on ice, rather than land, polar bears are the only bears to be considered marine mammals. They hunt, court, and mate out on the ice, spending many months of the year far from land.

3. THEY'RE HIGHER ON THE FOOD CHAIN THAN WE ARE.

A large polar bear opens its mouth in a roar.
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Human beings aren't as high on the global food chain as you might think. Polar bears don't have any natural predators, and their intensely carnivorous diet puts them at the top of the food chain with species like killer whales, according to researchers, while humans fall somewhere closer to the middle. Don't worry too much about getting eaten by one, though—a 2017 study found that during the past 144 years, there have only been 20 fatal polar bear attacks in all of the five countries that have polar bear populations. However, as food becomes more scarce for the bears, humans living in polar territory may soon face more risk from starving bears.

4. THEY'RE LONERS …

A polar bear walks across a large field of ice.
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Other than the two to three years a cub spends with its mother, polar bears are pretty much solitary creatures. Adults spend only a few days a year mating, then go on their own way, spreading out to hunt on their own. They rely on the scent left by the sweat glands on their paws to track other bears, using the smell to sense where potential mates might be headed, among other things.

5. … BUT ARE SOMETIMES WILLING TO SHARE.

A polar bear sleeps cuddled next to her cub.
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Polar bears can play nice with each other sometimes. On occasion, they will hang out together in large groups, especially if there's a big meal that multiple bears can take part in, like a whale carcass. When they do spend time together (in what's called a sleuth), male bears will play-fight with each other, wrestling and swatting at each other without doing any real harm. According to the documentary Polar Bears: Spy on the Ice, polar bears can recognize friends they've met before even if they go without seeing each other for many years.

6. THEY'RE PICKY EATERS.

A polar bear shares food with a cub.
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When food is plentiful, polar bears are very selective about what they eat. They hunt seals, but if there are plenty available to hunt, they won't eat their whole catch. Instead, they'll only eat the energy-rich blubber (up to 100 pounds at a time), leaving the rest of the carcass for other animals to scavenge. When hunting is good, their diet is made up of about 90 to 95 percent fat. When times are lean, though, they'll happily branch out, eating reindeer, rodents, eggs, seaweed, and anything else they can get their claws on. However, because their bodies are so much better at digesting fat than protein, researchers think that if Arctic ice continues to melt and polar bears become unable access the ice (with its blubber-rich seals), they won't be able to get enough calories on land to survive [PDF].

7. THEY SPEND A LOT OF TIME FASTING.

A polar bear sprawls out on its stomach.
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When they're not out on the ice scoping out seals, polar bears spend an incredible amount of time fasting. The female polar bears fast longer than any other mammal species—in Canada's Hudson Bay, pregnant polar bears can fast up to 240 days, or almost eight months. There's reason to think they'll be fasting even longer in the future as sea ice melts, leaving bears with fewer hunting opportunities and less time to accumulate the fat stores needed to get through the lean months. During the 1980s, non-pregnant polar bears spent 120 days fasting between hunting seasons, but researchers now think that the bears will have to go without food longer and longer, fasting for as much as 180 days at a time in the future.

8. THEY WILL TRAVEL FAR TO FIND DINNER.

Two polar bears walk through the snow.
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The average bear might travel across 100,000 square miles in its lifetime, and that number may be getting higher. In 2013, a bear searcher told the BBC that polar bears were spending 9 to 13 percent more time being active to make up for the fact that the ice they hunt on is drifting faster, leaving them walking on a "treadmill" just to stay within their territory. One bear tracked by the WWF traveled almost 2300 miles from Norway to Russia in less than a year. Due to receding ice, polar bears have to walk farther to find prey, wasting valuable energy. The energy they gain from eating a single ringed seal might not even make up for what they expend trying to find and catch it.

9. THEY CAN SWIM FOR DAYS.

A polar bear swims toward the camera.
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Polar bears are savvy swimmers, paddling at an average speed of 6 miles per hour. And it's a good thing: Due to all that melting ice, polar bears are putting their swimming skills to lengthy use. In 2011, a study reported that a tagged female polar bear swam a total of 426 miles in one nine-day stretch across the Beaufort Sea above Alaska, losing 22 percent of her body weight in the process. Another bear in the study swam for 12 days, though she at least stopped to take some breaks.

10. THEY GET HOT FAST.

A wet polar bear sticks its tongue out.
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You'd think with all that plunging in Arctic waters, polar bears might get chilly occasionally. But since they're built to withstand extreme cold on a regular basis, they actually have the opposite problem: They overheat very easily, and are more likely to die from the heat than the cold. Their two layers of fur and solid layer of body fat (up to 4.5 inches thick) keep their metabolic rate consistent when temperatures reach as low as -34° F. They can sprint up to 30 miles per hour if need be, but much like you wouldn't want to run a race in a heavy ski jacket, polar bears can't spend much time chasing after their prey lest they overheat—a bear's body temperature can rise to feverish temps if they move too fast. On land, they typically only walk at speeds of three miles an hour, and their main hunting technique involves staying very still for hours or days at a time, waiting for a seal to emerge from the ice to breathe.

11. THEY'VE BEEN GETTING IT ON WITH GRIZZLIES.

A polar bear sits with her two cubs.
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In addition to changing their travel patterns and dinner prospects, climate change is altering polar bears' love lives. As the ice-traversing bears are forced to spend more time on the tundra, their habitats are starting to overlap with those of grizzly bears. In some places, the two species are getting more comfortable with each other, with amorous results. In Alaska and western Canada, grizzlies and polar bears are doing more cross-breeding, creating hybrid offspring.

12. THEY GROW A LOT IN THEIR FIRST FEW MONTHS.

A polar bear cub sits on its mother's back.
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At birth, polar bears weigh anywhere from 16 to 24 ounces—about what a guinea pig does. As newborns, they're blind, toothless, and only about a foot long. But by the time they emerge from their den for the first time around four months later, they are substantially larger, weighing between 22 and 33 pounds. In addition to nursing, they'll begin eating solid food around that time, and by 8 months old, they'll weigh 100 pounds or more.

13. THEY HAVE HUGE FEET.

A polar bear swipes its paws in the water.
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In order to balance on ice, polar bears boast giant feet. Their paws can measure up to 12 inches in diameter, acting like snowshoes to spread out their weight on thin ice and deep snow. The bumpy papillae (like the ones on your tongue) on their footpads help grip the ice, keeping them from sliding around. They also have long, curved claws that can measure almost 4 inches—all the better to grab onto slippery seals.

14. UNLIKE OTHER BEARS, THEY DON'T HIBERNATE.

A polar bear leaps into the water.
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While black bears, grizzlies, and other bear species spend each winter denning, forgoing eating, drinking, moving, pooping, and peeing for months on end, polar bears stay active all winter. Polar bears don't need to sleep through the winter, though, because there's plenty of food available to them in the coldest months, when they take to the sea ice to hunt for seals. The only exception is during pregnancy, when a female polar bear digs herself a den and remains sealed inside, surviving off her stores of fat, until her cubs grow large enough to survive outdoors.

15. THEY LOVE TO NAP DURING SNOWSTORMS.

Two polar bears sleep covered in snow.
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Polar bears may not hibernate, but they are happy to lay low when bad weather hits. During the winter, they dig themselves into shallow pits in the snow to protect themselves from wind, sometimes remaining there for days as the snow piles up on top of them like a warm blanket. Sometimes, they take a similar approach to staying cool, digging through the tundra down to the permafrost during the summer to keep from overheating.

16. THEY'RE VERY HARD TO TRACK.

A polar bear wears a tracking collar.
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Considering how far they travel—both walking and swimming—over a given year, you can imagine how hard it is for scientists to track polar bears. By nature, they spend a huge amount of time alone in remote locations. Scientists use boats, helicopters, and low-flying planes to observe them, but that only works in good weather and in certain locations. So recently, they've turned to satellites, fitting bears with non-invasive radio collars and tracking them through high-resolution satellite imagery. It's cheaper than sending out a helicopter, and it lets researchers identify bears even in the most remote areas of the Arctic.

17. THEIR NOSTRILS CLOSE WHILE THEY SWIM.

A swimming polar bear peeks its nose out of the water.
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Polar bears don't have to worry about getting water up their nose. When they swim, their nostrils close to prevent them from breathing in water. They can swim at depths up to 15 feet, and while they typically only dive for a few seconds, they can hold their breath for more than two minutes, enabling them to sneak up on seals resting on ice floes. In 2015, scientists reported observing a record-breaking polar bear dive that totaled 3 minutes and 10 seconds. The hungry bear stalked three seals from afar, swimming almost 150 feet underwater without surfacing for a breath or to reorient himself to the seals' location before bursting out of the water where one of the seals was resting. (Sadly, his prey got away.)

18. THEY CAN TURN GREEN IN CAPTIVITY.

A polar bear in a zoo swims with a ball.
Ina Fassbender, AFP/Getty Images

Though polar bears are sometimes known as the white bear, they aren't white. Their hair is colorless and hollow, and only appears white because of the way light scatters through their fur. (Under that mass of hair, their skin is as black as their noses.) When bears are subject to warmer temperatures in captivity, though, they can take on a bit of a verdant hue. Algae infestations can turn polar bears green, and not just on the outer layer of their fur. The colorful algae grows inside the hollow tube of each hair. This green growth thrives in humid climates, like Singapore, where the bears don't naturally live.

19. THEY'LL NEVER MEET A PENGUIN.

A Bulgarian stamp set featuring a polar bear, a seal, penguins, and a walrus.
State Agency for Information Technology and Communications of Bulgaria, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.5

Though you might see polar bears and penguins together in Coca-Cola ads or on winter-themed pajamas, the two species never mix in real life. They live at opposite ends of the Earth, though they both spend their days in icy waters. Polar bears exclusively inhabit the Arctic, and penguins only live in the Southern Hemisphere. The closest they ever get is when they live in the same zoo.

20. AT ONE ZOO, THEY POOP GLITTER.

Gold glitter on a black background
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At the Assiniboine Park Zoo in Winnipeg, Canada, the polar bears have sparkly poop. In 2014, zookeepers began feeding each of their bears a different color of non-toxic glitter so that they could trace their bowel movements, analyzing the samples to identify health issues, track stress hormones, and generally see how the bears are dealing with zoo life. The colors help the zookeepers label which poop comes from which bear.

21. EUROPEANS HAVE KEPT THEM IN CAPTIVITY SINCE THE 13TH CENTURY.

A 1938, black-and-white photo of a polar bear lying on its back in a zoo
Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Captive polar bears have piqued public curiosity since as early as the Middle Ages, when the bears were occasionally given to European royalty by Viking traders. In the 1200s, when Henry III kept one in London, it was muzzled and chained but allowed to catch fish and swim in the Thames River. In the 17th century, Frederick I of Prussia kept a defanged and declawed polar bear, staging public fights between it and other large mammals for public amusement.

22. POSING WITH THEM WAS ONCE A POPULAR GERMAN PASTIME.

The orange cover of 'Teddybär' shows a person in a polar bear suit with his arms wrapped around a smiling boy.
Innocences

In the early 20th century, getting a picture with a man dressed in a polar bear suit was a fairly standard activity in Germany, at least according to the many photos found by French photo collector Jeann-Marie Donat. Donat spent 20 years tracking down the vintage photos, taken between 1920 and 1960, for his 2016 book Teddybär. There are several potential explanations for why so many Germans elected to stop for photos with people in polar bear suits (or to dress up as polar bears themselves). Donat suggests that it might trace back to the popularity of the two polar bears that arrived at the Berlin Zoo in the 1920s, while Hyperallergic notes that the costume was created as a Fanta advertising stunt, designed to distract Germans from the horrors of World War II. The photos show people young and old posing next to bears at the beach, in parks, in the street, in the summer and winter, alone and in groups. They all look delighted to get a chance at a polar-bear souvenir.

23. THEY CAN BE … POLARIZING.

Knut and his handler pose for photos lying down on their bellies.
John Macdougall, AFP/Getty Images

Knut, a polar bear cub born at the Berlin Zoological Garden in 2006, was hand-raised by zookeepers after being abandoned by his mother at birth. The cute cub became an instant tourist attraction—the most famous bear in the world, even—and the zoo's attendance rates skyrocketed, netting an extra $1.35 million in tickets when the bear began making twice-a-day public appearances.

But not everyone was psyched about "Knutmania." The young bear's popularity proved to be controversial for animal rights organizations like PETA, whose German spokesperson Frank Albrecht said the zoo should have let the orphaned Knut die rather than continue hand-feeding him, a process that he called a "gross violation of animal protection laws." In 2007, the bear received an anonymous, handwritten death threat from a hater who simply wrote "Knut is dead! Thursday midday." The zoo took the fax seriously enough to assign triple the amount of zookeepers keeping watch over the polar bear during his daily public romp. (Knut continued to live at the Berlin zoo until his death at age 4 from an autoimmune disease.)

24. THEY SOMETIMES GET THE CELEBRITY TREATMENT.

Photographers crowd in front of a barrier to photograph Knut at a zoo.
John Macdougall, AFP/Getty Images

In 2007, celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz photographed Knut for the cover of Vanity Fair's annual "Green" issue. While Knut appeared solo on the cover of the German edition, he was Photoshopped into an image with Leonardo DiCaprio for the American edition. After his death, the Berlin zoo erected a bronze statue in his honor, and his body was preserved for display at the city’s natural history museum.

25. CHURCHILL, CANADA HAS A UNIQUE WAY OF LIVING WITH THEM.

A green sign in a snowy field reads 'Polar Bear Alert: Stop.'
Paul J. Richards, AFP/Getty Images

Churchill, a town in Manitoba, Canada on the shores of the Hudson Bay, is known as the polar bear capital of the world. During the fall, hundreds of polar bears pass through on their way to their icy hunting grounds on the bay, waiting nearby as the ice hardens for the winter. The locals have adopted unique ways of living with the hungry bears. Many don't lock their doors, so that if someone is running away from a polar bear, they can duck into any doorway. Since Halloween falls right in the middle of polar bear season in town, city employees, police officers, volunteer fire officials, and polar bear conservationists stay on patrol to drive away any bears that might be tempted to go trick-or-treating themselves, using helicopters, sirens, air horns, rubber bullets, and more to keep the bears at bay. Kids, for their part, aren't allowed to wear anything white for the evening.

Churchill also runs a "polar bear jail" for bears that continue to wander into town. Residents are encouraged to call the Polar Bear Alert Program hotline year-round if they see a bear in town, and conservation officers will come and try to scare it away. If shooting loud scare rounds at the bear doesn't do the trick, they trap the bear, or, if all else fails, hit it with a tranquilizer dart and take it to the Polar Bear Holding Facility. The specially-designed compound can hold up to 30 bears and is meant to keep bears that are aggressive or persistently return to the community. When the bay freezes, these bears are transported by helicopter or vehicle onto the ice, where they resume their normal winter hunting routine. With warmer temperatures keeping bears off the ice for longer and longer periods, more towns may soon have to learn from Churchill's strategies for peaceful coexistence.

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There's Only One Carbon Negative Country in the World (Here's How They Do It)
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Chris Jackson, Getty Images

In 2017, the small nation of Bhutan became the first and only carbon negative country in the world. That's right: not carbon neutral, carbon negative.

In an article on the subject, the Climate Council—an independent, Australia-based nonprofit organization dedicated to educating the public on matters related to climate change—defines carbon negative status as occurring when a country's carbon emissions are not only offset, but are actually in the negative due to the generation and exportation of renewable energy. There are several reasons for this impressive feat.

Bhutan—a small, landlocked country in the middle of the Himalayas—has a population of approximately 813,000 and produces 2.2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. The country is 72 percent forest, and those forests trap more than three times their carbon dioxide output through a process called carbon sequestration, the long-term storage of carbon in plants, soil, and the ocean. This means that Bhutan is a carbon sink: It absorbs more carbon than it releases as carbon dioxide. Specifically, Bhutan is a carbon sink for more than 4 million tons of CO2 each year. In addition, the country exports most of the renewable electricity generated by its rivers, which is equivalent to 6 million tons of CO2.

Bhutan is also exceptionally environmentally friendly. This is partly because it takes a holistic view of development, measuring it with the Gross National Happiness Index instead of the Gross Domestic Product Index, like most countries. Instead of only prioritizing economic improvement, Gross National Happiness balances it with sociocultural and environmental improvement. The eco-conscious country invests in sustainable transport, subsidizes electric vehicles, and has an entirely paperless government.

Bhutan has pledged to remain carbon neutral for all time, and it's safe to say it's doing pretty well so far.

[h/t The Climate Council]

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