Zoo News

Oct 18, 2011

Day 5

Day 5 (Thursday, October 13, 2011)
Today was our last full day on the Tundra Buggy®.  We’re filled with mixed emotions—we’re excited to go home (and to finally take a shower!), but we’re also sad to leave our new friends (the human ones AND the two polar bears we have affectionately dubbed Chomp and Sniff, who hang out by our Lodge).
The day was packed full with invaluable discussions. We heard from several PBI staff members, who provided us with an overview of PBI, including their mission, goals, resources, information about additional projects they’re working on to further benefit polar bear populations and their expectations of us as we “graduate” from this program. I continue to be blown away each time I receive more information about how PBI has grown as a conservation organization. Considering how much work they do, it’s surprising that so much is accomplished by their small staff of approximately 10 employees. However, it’s also a great reminder just how much can be done by only a handful of people who are committed to helping the environment!
Our discussions took place with Krista Wright, PBI’s Chief Executive Vice President and Chief of Operations; Jane Kudrna Arnold, PBI’s Online Store Manager; and Barbara Nielsen, PBI’s Director of Communications. All of us know it won’t be an easy task to spread the message about climate change. It’s so nice (and comforting) to know that we won’t be alone in our endeavors. My fellow Camp participants and I will help support each other, of course, but we also have PBI staff in our corner. They’re committed to helping us by publicizing our events, providing us with educational tools and materials like bookmarks and mini-posters, as well as giving us access to PBI video from their Film and Media Library to help enhance our message. We were also excited to learn that PBI has developed a Polar Bear Cam, which will be launched next week. People will be able to observe Churchill’s polar bears from their computers!
PBI is also involved in a variety of other field projects. BJ Kirschhoffer, PBI’s Director of Field Operations, spoke to us about his involvement in ongoing polar bear research on Alaska’s North Slope. Prudhoe Bayis not only important to oil and gas companies, but it is also favored among polar bears. It has become one of the species’ largest maternal denning sites in the U.S.  BJ helps scientists locate and study maternal dens using thermal imaging technology with infrared cameras. He showed us a great video his group happened to take while flying over a den in a helicopter at night. A female polar bear was in the process of digging her den in the snow, and the camera picked up her movement. (Only her head was sticking out of the den, but we could make it out perfectly—especially her ears and nose!)  The group has also worked with keepers at the San Diego Zoo and SeaWorld San Diego, who were able to study their bears to help detect the range of polar bear hearing. This fascinating research has been combined with scientists’ research in the Alaskan polar bear population to determine the possible effects that human actions (especially oil drilling) will have on denning sites. The oil companies have also been supportive of this research and have donated their helicopters and planes to help reduce costs of these studies.  
During the afternoon, we held our webinar—our first real “test” at spreading the message of climate change. Each of us had a topic to cover, including why polar bears congregate in Churchill, what efforts are being made to help keep residents and polar bears safe, why polar bear populations are declining and what we can do to help secure their future. To give our webinar attendees a better understanding of Churchill itself, I provided some history of the area, including information about the people who have inhabited it over the years. We also took time to answer some questions that were emailed to us by those watching our webcast. Overall, it seemed to be a success!
After the webinar, we had a chance to Skype with Robert Buchanan, PBI’s President and CEO, and his wife, Carolyn, Secretary of PBI. Both commended us for our hard work and provided pep talks to help keep us motivated. 
One of my fellow Camp participants asked Robert what message is the hardest for him to get across to the public. In the entire topic of climate change, he said the most challenging point to make is that the polar bear is North America’s iconic species. When he travels to Europe, people have asked him on numerous occasions why Americans don’t seem to care as much about polar bears. Robert pointed out to us that since North America is home to 77% of the world’s polar bears, this species is our continent’s tiger, lion or elephant…all species of which are iconic to other parts of the world. The polar bear itself is an environmental indicator of things happening now…and events to come. Climate change isn’t confined to just the Arctic. It not only affects animals but also humans in many parts of the globe. There are a variety of ways that climate change will continue to show its effects, including rising ocean levels (and subsequent flooding), disease and possible conflicts over controlling natural resources.
While I understand how the controversy over the issue of climate change tends to focus more on HOW to handle the situation, I am discouraged by so much finger-pointing–that someone else should be making more of an effort; that polar bears should learn to adapt to land; that the bears shouldn’t be confined to captivity through the Canadian government’s placement of orphan cubs in U.S. zoos; that if polar bears become extinct, it’s the way it has to go in order for Man to survive; that government officials should be the ones left to handle it, etc. Is it even still possible for people to at least agree that we should somehow replenish what we’re taking from our earth before it’s too late? I happen to think that most people already believe that. At times, this still seems like an overwhelming issue. Scientists are still researching what possible outcomes may result from reducing our carbon footprint. In the meantime, however, why SHOULDN’T we be more mindful of recycling (and purchasing recycled products to complete that cycle), using more energy efficient lightbulbs or even lowering the temperature in our homes during winter by a couple of degrees? These actions help the environment AND help us to save money in the longrun.
It was during this Skype session with Robert that I experienced a somewhat embarrassing moment (for me). After answering some questions, he asked if anyone else had anything to ask. I raised my hand and said that while I didn’t have a question, I just wanted to take the time to thank him for providing us all with the amazing opportunity to experience Churchill. It was then that a wave of emotion hit me. In the middle of my sentence, my voice cracked and I couldn’t go on.  I lowered my eyes, feeling rather silly as the tears freely flowed down my face. I felt the reassuring pat on my knee from Tajah (from the Philadelphia Zoo), and looked up in time to find at least four other communicators brushing tears away from their own faces. I realized at that moment I shouldn’t be embarrassed. We had truly gotten the message—and it was the whole point of us coming to Churchill. So many poignant moments from the trip started flashing before me, including the beauty of the tundra, visions of one of the skinnier bears, and the sound of Dr. Amstrup and Bill Watkins’ voices as they said scientists and the Canadian government are turning to zoos and individuals like us for help.  Robert just smiled and said he, too, knew this whole experience was emotional. It was a knowing smile—he’s experienced this emotion, too. During his visit to the Buffalo Zoo earlier this year, he said there’s nothing like making eye contact with your first polar bear in Churchill. He warned me to be prepared for when that polar bear stares into my eyes because my soul will be touched forever. To anyone who hasn’t experienced it firsthand, it may sound a little cheesy. You know what, though? He was absolutely right. 
After dinner, we had our “graduation.” We have officially become Arctic Ambassadors! I’m still a bit exhausted from such an emotional day, but I’m also feeling quite invigorated. I’m aware of the challenges that face us, but I’m also eager to start planning ways that I, personally, can help polar bears…and how I can work with all of you so, together, we can experience the rewarding results of knowing we’re protecting our planet!
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