Shelly's Updates from Churchill

AZA’s Conservation Biologist, Shelly Grow is attending Polar Bear International's Communicators Leadership Camp  from October 3-8, 2010, and she will be posting her impressions and photos from her stay in The Polar Bear Capital of the World. The camp's attendees are zoo-based educators and public relations and marketing staff focused on what is going on in the Arctic, climate change and polar bear science, interpretation strategies and how people learn, and building tools that focus on the best ways to share the message.

October 7, 2010

We had another chance to communicate our enthusiasm for northern animals and habitats to school children today, this time through a video-conference with multiple grades at Herrera Elementary School in El Paso, Texas. Interestingly enough, their school mascot is the polar bear. Cathy Ryan-Smith from Cleveland Metroparks Zoo runs distance learning programs for her zoo, and her expertise was clear today! She makes instant connections with the children and got them asking lots of enthusiastic questions.

Robert Buchanan, President and CEO of Polar Bear International, called us this morning as well, providing inspiration and giving us personal challenges. It was a great way to draw us into discussions that continued throughout the day about what we were going to do when we returned home. By the end of the day, we had come up with ambitious plans and the encouragement of our peers that we can – and must – take on the challenge.  

And of course, we went out on the buggy today to continue exploring the tundra. Everyday we see new animals – with today’s highlights including snow geese, lesser yellowlegs, and an arctic hare. What an incredible place to be!

Arctic Fox. Photo credit: Jennifer Haase, Tulsa Zoo 

October 6, 2010

We started the morning with discussions with Geoff York from WWF-Canada, and then skyped into an elementary school to share what we were seeing and learning with classes from Bennett and Bonlee, North Carolina. The kids had clearly done their homework in advance and were well-prepared with questions. Steve Gerkin, a participant in the Leadership Camp from the North Carolina Zoo, did a great job facilitating the discussion between us and the boys and girls. This was a great test to see whether we had learned how to communicate our experiences here to people back home.

We visited the tree-line today, which is several kilometers away from the Tundra Buggy Lodge and not exactly what I think of as a “forest.” Only two species of tree are found in this forest, black spruce and tamarack, and the trees grow on a spongy bed of lichens and moss. Understanding the links between how increased carbon emissions are affecting this ecosystem, the role of trees is sequestering carbon, and the amount of carbon emitted from the activities of the “average” U.S. citizen is no easy feat, and we’ll all be working on how to balance this equation for a days to come.

Polar Bear outside the Tundra Buggy Lodge at Polar Bear Point. Photo credit: Jennifer Jaudon, Memphis Zoo

October 5, 2010

Polar bears do not have snow available year round. Churchill marks the southern tip of where the winter ice begins forming, so bears come here to wait for the ice to form in mid-November. By then, most of them will not have eaten, except opportunistically, since late June, when the last of the winter ice went out. It used to be that they would have been out on the ice and eating until the third week of July, but the ice is going out earlier and earlier, and now they’re essentially fasting for almost three weeks longer.

We spent today learning about the bears and discussing links between the animals in zoos and aquariums and those in the wild. People love polar bears, but why? What is it about these amazing animals that capture people’s hearts, even if they don’t know about their incredible life history? What is the story about these animals that we, as communicators and educators, want to share with people so we can inspire everybody to participate in the bears’ conservation? We might not have the answers yet, but we’re working on them!

Small groups work together at PBI's Leadership Camp. Photo credit: Jennifer Jaudon, Memphis Zoo 

October 4, 2010

Monday started out impressive- flying from Winnipeg to Churchill over a landscape dotted with small lakes and bogs. As we landed, snow buntings were thick as sparrows down south. And it continued to amaze, as we drove into Churchill to meet with long-time trappers, heard their stories, and got to share their home for a couple hours. The day continued well with a meeting with the folks in charge of the Polar Bear Alert System; a system which seeks to remove bears from the town of Churchill before conflicts arise. They now remove an average of 60 bears per year and there hasn’t been a human killed by a polar bear in town since the early 1980’s.

And then the day got really good.

On our tundra buggy drive to the Tundra Buggy Lodge we had five polar bear sightings, immature bald eagles, ptarmigans, a short-eared owl, and an arctic fox that yawned and stretched, and walked posed like a model. Night was capped off by a display of Northern Lights.

Polar Bear welcoming us to Tundra Buggy Camp on first day. Photo credit: Cathy Ryan-Smith, Cleveland Metroparks Zoo

This is the backdrop as we are all busy thinking of what we can do back home to share our enthusiasm and our concern for this fragile ecosystem.

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