Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

How Peter the bear came to life one night at the museum

Star attraction: Peter the bear
Star attraction: Peter the bear

You have to put yourself in the shoes of that nightwatchman, really. We'd have all probably called the police in the same circumstances. There you are minding your own business in the wee small hours. You can hear a pin drop.

All around, exhibits of the Ulster Museum take their breather from the daily stares of the curious, and not so curious, visitors. It's a routine night, long before Hollywood and Ben Stiller thought such a scenario could be turned into a blockbuster movie.

Under a canvas, the newest recruit to the exhibition is awaiting the attention of the taxidermists. It's Peter the polar bear, dead just 12 hours previously. The museum is hoping he'll be the new star of the show. Those ceramics and earthenware pots in their neglected corners won't stand a chance.

But something is wrong. There are noises coming from under the sheet, stirrings. Nervously, the nightwatchman approaches. Another movement, the canvas appears to lift. It's full-on terror now.

There's only one thing to do. Call the police. Peter the polar bear appears to be very much alive and is likely to be pretty upset at the inconvenience of all this.

The police, used to very different kinds of calls in those days, race to the museum. Did you know this story? I didn't until I took a friend and his fed-up five-year-old down to the museum one recent, drab Sunday.

The kid ceased his morning-long gurning as he feasted his eyes on Peter, dumbstruck as thousands of similar five-year-olds have been down through the decades by the beast's majestic size and, even now, promise of power.

I watched other children drawn like moths to flames to Peter, walk around him, begin to get some appreciation that we are by no means the most beautiful thing on this planet. Perhaps they'll even ask questions of their parents as to why Peter's descendants are now so scarce.

He's seen it all before has Peter, he's pretty used to being king here, no-one's gonna threaten his environment. This is not the polar ice cap.

He still looks magnificent, his coat has a lovely sheen, he looks imperious, not half-famished and desperate like today's versions you see captured by cameramen in helicopters. As well as an icon of the global diversity we dare not lose, Peter serves as another symbol closer to home.

Back to our story. You see, Peter died aged 30 at Belfast Zoo in 1972, the bloodiest year of our conflict. But he expired on an extremely rare day in Northern Ireland at that time. A slow news day.

That night at the museum, Peter had begun his decomposition phase and his limbs began to stiffen. What the nightwatchman had heard were gases escaping his body and the movement was the onset of rigor mortis. No wonder the poor man was terrified.

The world's Press pack at the Europa Hotel, with little mindless mayhem and carnage to report on, sped en masse down to the museum. The story of the polar bear that came back to life went around the world, a lovely little tale that, for the briefest of time, showed Northern Ireland could be as deliciously, instead of dangerously, bonkers a place as most of the normal world. Peter became a sort of posthumous hero to a people weary of the grimness of it all.

It's worth heading down to the Ulster Museum to say hello to him some time. For those of you who remember those days, maybe give him a nod of thanks for being different.

* Mike Gilson is Editor of the Belfast Telegraph

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