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Polar bears help Brookfield in climate fight

Brookfield Zoo is leading charge among zoos help educate zoo visitors about climate change. Alejandro Grajal is leading climate change

Brookfield Zoo is leading the charge among zoos to help educate zoo visitors about climate change. Alejandro Grajal is leading the climate change program. He posed with polar bear Hudson, of a species directly affected by climate change. | Rich Hein~Sun-Times

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Updated: March 27, 2012 8:10AM

Call them the ursine Al Gores.

Hudson and Aussie, the Brookfield Zoo’s charismatic polar bears, are helping the zoo plunge headfirst into the hot topic of global warming. The zoo is leading a group of 15 zoos and aquariums across the country, including Chicago’s Shedd Aquarium, in trying to understand and then educate their audiences about the politically charged topic.

“We don’t have talking heads talking about climate change,” said Alejandro Grajal, senior vice president of conservation and education at the Chicago Zoological Society, which manages Brookfield. “To us the hook is the emotional connection with the animals,”

Zoo staff didn’t seek out climate change as an issue to tackle, he said. They simply couldn’t ignore it.

“In our case this is the topic of the 21st century,” he said. “If we are an environmental organization than climate change affects everything we do in conservation. It’s everywhere. It affects everything from the rainforest to the poles.”

Brookfield Zoo received a $1 million grant from the National Science Foundation to lead a team of 15 zoos and aquariums across the country in exploring the issue of climate change among zoo and aquarium visitors. While nationally 64 percent of Americans believe climate change is happening, that percentage rises to 82 percent for zoo and aquarium visitors, surveys at the participating institutions showed.

“The American public is not that engaged on climate change,” Grajal said. “This is a great opportunity. We have a favorable audience.”

The survey of 7,200 zoo and aquarium visitors also revealed that about 90 percent of those who believe climate change is happening don’t believe they can do anything about it. Grajal is also working with educators and psychologists to determine the best way to educate on a subject that can be dry and overwhelming.

“The mistake we made in the past was saying this was a huge problem and unless you change your lifestyle radically and all the politicians worldwide get together we’re doomed,” Grajal said. “It’s very pessimistic.”

The focus now is on encouraging people to make small lifestyle tweaks, like not idling their cars, using more energy efficient light bulbs and, when possible, eating locally grown produce.

Michelle Parker, the Shedd’s vice president of Great Lakes and sustainability, said that a series of videos shown before the Shedd’s aquatic show highlighted efforts the aquarium is making to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. In the summer, the aquarium is growing flowers, food and vegetables for some animals to cut down on food shipments. Aquarium staff are also growing tiny shrimp, snails, crickets and plankton for food.

“That’s not only good for greenhouse gas and climate change but it’s also really good for the animals,” Parker said. “We’re really directly responsible for the animals’ diets.”

Grajal said not everyone has been open to the zoo’s climate change work.

“We always get one or two letters a year saying we are drinking the hippie leftist plot Kool-Aid,” he said.

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