The Hip Get In Touch With Polar Bears

Gus the polar bear — stingnygaard, creative commons

Gus the polar bear — stingnygaard, creative commons

In anticipation of the release of the new Tragically Hip album, In Between Evolution, and the Hip’s big Canada Day Concert at Toronto’s Molson Amphitheatre, ChartAttack is declaring June 25 – 30 “Tragically Hip Week.” Leading up to July 1, we’ll be posting stories culled from a recent interview with Hip singer Gord Downie.

Here’s the third installment:

The Tragically Hip want you to know about the plight of depressed polar bears. One of the most compelling songs from The Hip’s new album In Between Evolution is an earnest ode called “Gus: The Polar Bear From Central Park.”

Gus, for those of you not up on your cults of animal appreciation, is one of the main attractions of the Central Park Zoo in New York. The giant bear was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive behavior back in ’94, largely caused by the fact that tight zoo quarters tend to wreak havoc on the well-being of polar bears used to roaming 25 kilometres per day in the wild.

“Any time you’ve ever seen any animal in captivity — especially big guys like that — there’s a behavior that becomes pretty easy to spot. A dementia is what they call it,” says Hip frontman Gord Downie. “They have other names for it. Depression. So that’s sort of what we’re paying money to go see.”

To the Zoo’s credit, they paid $25,000 to an animal behaviorist to help find ways to get Gus out of his funk, which resulted in extensive activation programs to help his illness. And a few years ago they gave Gus’s quarters a massive expansion as well as providing him with some company in the form of two female companions, Ida and Lily. All this has made Gus and his girlfriends quite the media stars.

In addition to The Hip’s sonic salute, numerous news stories have been written about Gus. He’s also been the subject of a children’s book and a short film as well as inspiring performance art and fringe plays. His own “art” (chunks of log he has scratched up and chewed up rubber balls) will soon be available for sale on eBay.

Downie says the inspiration for the song came from a headline he read in the newspaper during a visit to New York. In the song, Gus is too down to feel like killing anything, which is a symptom of his depression.

“I know for a fact that polar bears, as a rule, and not even as a rule, unequivocally, want to kill anything that moves and eat it,” he says. “So there’s no sort of, I don’t think there’s any really taming them, really. And I think it’s one of those things where, yeah, if you’re up there in the tundra and you’re moving around, the only reason it’s not going to kill and eat you is because it’s already full. There’s something about that that’s kind of compelling to me.

“And we needn’t look much further than our own lives, I guess. I guess you can expand upon those feelings and thoughts as much as you like when you see that. Which I guess is also about what we pay money to see or do.”

The Tragically Hip’s In Between Evolution is in stores today.

This story was originally published June 29, 2004 via Chart Communications.

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