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A polar bear is walking the streets of Honolulu as a climate refugee

polar bear waikiki 022023.jpg
Lillian Tsang
A 7-foot tall polar bear puppet named Qanuk walks through Waikīkī on Feb. 20, 2023, to highlight the effects of climate change.

Don’t be surprised to see an Alaskan polar bear puppet pop up around Honolulu this week. Qanuk Nanuk is trekking around the island to highlight her plight as a climate refugee.

Melting sea ice has forced the mother bear to leave her cubs alone in search of a safer, sustainable home. That’s the story behind the nearly 7-foot-tall puppet — which requires two people to operate the body and its mechanical head.

"Definitely it's not just a piece of art. It makes you think what might be the reason behind it," said one visitor from Italy who was walking along Kalākaua Avenue. "Maybe it's a more serious cause like global warming... the impact that it has on species like them."

Qanuk walks along Kalākaua Avenue in Waikīkī on Feb. 20, 2023.

That's exactly what visual storyteller and designer Kathleen Doyle intended when she created the whimsical beast. Her name means “snowflake” in the Indigenous language of the Yupik people.

"Here's an animal, a climate refugee of a different species than our own, but equally worthy of our compassion and our concern, our care and our urgent attention," Doyle said. "She, by her very presence, is reaching out to us, is gently pleading to us simply by her presence that she's in need."

Doyle hopes to take Qanuk Nanuk to the Hawaiʻi State Art Museum, Hanauma Bay and more. She also visited with local lawmakers at the Capitol on Wednesday.

Extended Interview - Kathleen Doyle
The Conversation - Feb. 22, 2023

"We would like to kind of visualize the narrative that she has swum here, washed up on these beautiful beaches, ambled her way through the greens and the hibiscus and this beautiful but chaotic environment for her, and then landed in the cityscape of Honolulu and Waikīkī," Doyle told The Conversation.

"This is not an ideal climate for polar bears. But at the moment there is not an ideal climate for polar bears, but she's receiving a warm welcome," the artist said.

The project began almost three years ago for International Polar Bear Day, Feb. 27, at New York City's American Museum of Natural History.

"It just reminds me of the power of theatricality, the power of puppets, the power of spectacle to connect us and to approach each other, peacefully, to find this common ground that we all find some kind of delight and curiosity in," Doyle said.

This interview aired on The Conversation on Feb. 22, 2023. The Conversation airs weekdays at 11 a.m. on HPR-1.

Lillian Tsang is the senior producer of The Conversation. She has been part of the talk show team since it first aired in 2011. Contact her at ltsang@hawaiipublicradio.org.
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