Anthony Nielsen is the lead keeper at Lincoln Park Zoo’s Kovler Lion House, but his wildlife outreach doesn’t stop with the zoo’s big cats. He’s traveled to the Arctic to assist climate research as part of a Feay Earthwatch grant and continues to work with fellow caregivers to raise awareness about the conservation impact of climate change.
As part of our focus on International Polar Bear Day, we caught up with Anthony for a quick Q&A.
In 2010 you traveled to the Arctic to assist with climate research as part of the Feay Earthwatch Grant. How did that experience—which included seeing polar bears in the wild—affect your outlook on day-to-day animal care work at Lincoln Park Zoo?
Anthony poses at the research site in Churchill, Manitoba.
When you see a polar bear in the wild, it makes you more appreciative of the work you do with the animals here at the zoo. You want to make sure these bears are protected in the wild. By sharing your experiences with visitors in context with polar bear Anana here at the zoo, you hope they leave wanting to make a change in their daily decisions.
Are you still in touch with any of your peers or researchers from the trip? What's new at the field site?
The professor I worked under, Peter Kershaw, Ph.D., started research in this area back in the 70s; the Earthwatch program I participated in started in 2003. In 2013 he retired from the program, and a new scientist has taken over.
The program still exists but they continue to add to it. They recently started a project, G-TREE, which will involve planting tree seed in a variety of different ways to attempt to test for limitations of tree recruitment at the treeline [the edge of that habitat at which trees are capable of growing]. This will be an important component of the long-term studies based in Churchill. With international cooperation it will reinforce the stature of the Churchill Northern Studies Center and Earthwatch’s support of treeline studies tied to climate change.
You've continued to be a polar bear advocate since your return. What are some of the things you've done to raise awareness about the challenges facing wild polar bears—and help conserve them?
Through the Lincoln Park American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) and Polar Bears International, we have competed in a friendly contest over the years with other AAZK chapters. The program, called Trees for You and Me, allows us to raise money to plant trees in our community. The goal is raise awareness about the threat of climate change and how it affects the environment in which polar bears and other Arctic animals cohabitate.
What are some steps people in Chicago can take to help conserve polar bears?
We are asking people on International Polar Bear Day to “2 up or 2 down for Polar Bears.” We want you to adjust your thermostat by two degrees, depending on where you live. If you live in Chicago, lower your thermostat and throw on a sweater for the day. This reminds us how we can all do our part to reduce carbon emissions.
What memories stand out most on seeing polar bears in the wild?
The memory that stands out the most for me is when we came across a mother and her two cubs. It was good to see that she was healthy and able to produce two strong cubs that were able to crawl all over her and each other. We probably watched them for hours.
A mother polar bear with two cubs near Churchill, Manitoba. Anthony's Arctic experience, including this encounter, underscored the importance of working together to conserve this iconic species.
Anana Explores the Snow
Want to see Anana in action? Here's a fun throwback video of the female polar bear enjoying some icy treats at Polar Bear Plaza.
Field Note: Polar Bear
Learn some cool facts about this arctic carnivore’s breeding behavior and social interactions in the wild.
Update from the Arctic
Lead Keeper Anthony Nielsen shares digging up permafrost in the Arctic to study climate change, a trip made possible by the Feay Earthwatch Grant.