Whilst shaping up the individual illustrations for the picture book version of Charles Causley’s poem, ‘My Mother Saw A Dancing Bear’, I’m constantly baffled during my research by the need for anthropomorphism. Perhaps because it absolutely doesn’t fit with the narrative I’m working with – I feel like Causley’s bear must be factual – obviously wild and in need of release, not ‘tamed’ (read ‘tortured’) into ‘human’ (read ‘horrifically undignified’) performances. I say that as possibly one of The biggest fans of Winnie The Pooh and Paddington (especially EH Shephard’s and Peggy Fortnum’s drawings for each).
This Causley poem just isn’t that sort of territory. It makes me ever so serious when I don’t want to be. It only takes a little research online watching contemporary and historical footage of anything from bear cubs to giant grizzlies to show the extent and the diversity of methods by which we bash bears up in the name of making them do utterly unnatural things. Among the techniques is using hot plates to make the bear ‘dance’ to raise their feet and thereby respond to cues for food. Stolen from their mothers as cubs, they are ‘imprinted’ or bred in captivity, and respond to their torturers/trainers as they would parents, entirely dependent, not having had the chance to develop any scavenging or hunting skills.
What preceded this? Performing bears go way back. The most famous stage-direction in Shakespeare, which in ‘The Winter’s Tale’ foretells the death of Antigonus, still fires speculation today about whether ‘The Bard’ (as Uncle Monty would say) used a real live bear, borrowed from a travelling circus which happened to be visiting Southwark when he put it on. It’s argued Shakespeare, ever the canny businessman, knew ursine action would get bums on seats.
Whatever we think about that very distinguished bear and his or her delivery, making animals out to be like humans brings with it the expectation that bears are so like humans they are just pretending to bears. Rather like those who think people who don’t speak English are just being awkward. Somehow, bears are expected to ‘behave’ – despite years of torture, and what basically looks like Stockholm syndrome – right up until they maul their owners for forgetting to feed them for three days.
The anthropomorphism phenomenon is a cultural precursor which damns the safety of bears, and many other animals. In seeking to idealise our relationship with Nature we romanticise it, and that means we shrug responsibility for treating it with respect as well as affection. I’m hoping to capture some of that wildness in my ‘bruin’ as Causley calls it – a word from the Dutch, which means I must make it a European Brown Bear (Ursus arctos arctos). In the meantime, here’s a different sort I drew earlier: