Climate change wasn’t yet a fixture of mainstream media reporting, Western’s student newspaper was still printing a new issue almost every day, and Gloria Dickie, BA’12, was kick-starting her writing career by covering the story of a southwestern Ontario man attacked by his tiger.
More than a decade later, Dickie is now an award-winning environmental journalist with Reuters in London, U.K. and awaiting the release of her first book.
Eight Bears: Mythic Past and Imperiled Future will be released July 11.
Always an animal lover, Dickie joked she’s been on the “charismatic megafauna” beat – writing about those large animals over 100 pounds – ever since that first story about exotic animal ownership rules, after Norman Buwalda was killed by a Siberian tiger he kept on his rural property in Elgin County.
Dickie has traded tigers for another species in recent years, though, travelling the world to follow the bears – or as she says, “follow the scientists following the bears.”
They’re the focus of Dickie’s upcoming book and a journey that led her to China, the Andes, the Arctic and other remote locations to find her subjects.
“I grew up in London, Ont., which does not have any bears,” Dickie said with a chuckle. “I used to spend hours photographing squirrels in the backyard, that was the closest thing we have to wildlife. I was very enamoured with the prospect and idea of big animals that we did not have.”
The bears that started it all
After graduating from Western’s media, information and technoculture (MIT) program, she completed a master’s degree in environmental journalism at the University of Colorado Boulder, a program perfectly aligned with Dickie’s dreams for her reporting career.
Human and bear conflict was on the rise in Boulder, driven by student parties and littering, and it inspired her master’s project investigating black bear interactions with humans across the American West.
“So I went to Lake Tahoe and Aspen, Boulder, Banff looking at how these different communities were dealing with garbage and trying to create bear resistant-bin bylaws. The issue was that when these bears got into garbage, wildlife wardens would often kill them (calling it) a risk to society. They became habituated to humans,” Dickie said.
“I took a lot of photos of trash cans in some very scenic places,” she laughed.
That led Dickie to future coverage on grizzly bears, followed by polar bears.
She was hooked.
“I couldn’t really find the book I wanted to read about all the world’s bears. I realized there are only eight (species) of them, and I thought ‘Oh, that’s a manageable number.’”
Global journey to track eight species
Dickie wanted to see more of the world. The book offered the perfect opportunity, so she took it, working as a freelance foreign correspondent to support herself.
“I basically just lived out of my backpack for three years, traveled and did stories as I followed the bears, or rather, follow the scientists following the bears,” Dickie said.
She spent a day as a volunteer panda keeper in China, feeding the bears and cleaning up inside their enclosure. She trekked through Ecuador to find the spectacled bear. She observed “iconic, powerful polar bears” on sea ice.
There were no fatal mistakes or frightening interactions with bruins, though she said she was shocked by the environmental realities she witnessed.
“It’s striking how little wilderness there is left, how fractured and fragmented a lot of these environments are and how threatened the species are. It’s crazy to think an animal like a polar bear could be at risk of being completely gone by the end of the century. But that’s what the scientists are saying.”
It’s not a biology book about bears, she noted, but the human relationship to them.
The book promises to weave together “ecology, history, mythology, and a captivating account of her travels and observations . . . Eight Bears delivers a clear warning for what we risk losing if we don’t learn to live alongside the animals that have shaped our cultures, geographies, and stories,” according to the Dickie’s website.
Lifelong environmental passion
Dickie always wanted to bring news about pressing environmental issues to the masses. She’s covered everything from invasive mink to maggot farming.
She said she feels “lucky” for the foundation set during her undergraduate degree at Western.
“I was one of those rare people who knew what I wanted to do very, very young. I wanted to be an environmental journalist,” she said.
“Climate change hadn’t reached that spotlight moment, so I think I was in a very advantageous point at Western and going into my career, because there weren’t many people competing (for those jobs). Now younger people all want to be on the climate beat, it’s like the cool beat to be on. So that kind of set the path forward for me.”
In her second year, she joined the Western Gazette, eventually rising up the ranks to become editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She credits her time at the Gazette for providing an on-the-ground journalistic education, learning the tricks of the trade, especially as a shy person by nature.
“It just kind of forced you in. I basically learned everything I know about reporting from the Gazette. In terms of how to report, how to meet deadlines, how to get stories, that was all learned at the Gazette. Western was such a great microcosm of the real world. The student government and the student newspaper were both so engaged,” Dickie said.
“It felt like an HBO TV show: the drama, the romance,” she said. “I’m a big supporter of student newspapers, especially when the media landscape is so challenging. It’s such a great place to learn.”
Dickie still remembers her go-to breakfast order at The Spoke (asiago bagel with red pepper cream cheese) and recalled putting newspaper issues to bed at 10 p.m. before hustling over to catch Rick McGhie.
When she was at Western, the Gazette was published four days a week with a circulation of 11,000.
Now a global climate and environment correspondent at Reuters News Agency, Dickie writes for an international readership at one of the largest news organizations in the world.
“I love being a journalist. I started at the Gazette 13 years ago now. I really enjoy mentoring younger people coming onto this beat, who really want to get into environmental reporting,” she said.
That mission is as critical to Dickie today as it was before she started her career.
“I hope that climate change, environmental issues, stay at the top of the agenda. We’re going on seven, eight years of deep issues – crises – and I think that you do tend to see fatigue. It’s hard to keep people’s attention, especially when you have a pandemic and war going on,” she said.
“I hope that support for environmental reporting remains. I hope to stay on this beat for a long time. We certainly haven’t solved the climate crisis or come close to solving the issues facing biodiversity.”