It’s a long way from Tacoma, Washington to Churchill, Manitoba: about 1,420 miles as the crow flies, at least eight hours by plane. There’s no road. In icy isolation on Canada’s Hudson Bay, it’s a world away from the lush, evergreen Puget Sound region.
The thing the two towns have in common? Polar bears – and a zookeeper who’s passionate about them. Staff biologist Cindy Roberts had her life changed when she traveled to Churchill in 2015 to see polar bears and learn how to inspire people to protect them.
Now she’s just returned from two more weeks as a field ambassador with conservation non-profit Polar Bears International (PBI). This November, she spent her time watching bears, talking about them with tourists on tundra buggies and inside the new PBI House, and inspiring folks to take action on climate change.
“The first time I saw a polar bear in the wild, I just stared with tears in my eyes,” Roberts remembers from the 2015 trip. “It changed my life, literally. I learned how to talk about these incredible animals and about how I care for them at Point Defiance Zoo.”
Roberts returned to speak at local schools and libraries, founding the annual Party for Polar Bears which has raised $12,000 for PBI in four years. (The next Party for Polar Bears will happen Feb. 27.)
She also helped promote the Polar Bear Pal no-idling campaign at the Zoo, which is now a PBI Arctic Ambassador Center.
“It’s been an amazing journey,” says Roberts. “The tools they gave me really made a difference in the community.”
Caring for bears
Roberts’ perspective as a keeper who works up close with polar bears every day – and helps with their scientific study – is invaluable.
“Cindy is uniquely poised to share the invaluable contributions that our Arctic Ambassador Centers provide to conservation science,” says Alysa McCall, director of conservation outreach at PBI. “We were thrilled to welcome her!”
In Churchill, Roberts chatted with up to 80 tourists a day, plus scientists and researchers from around the globe.
She also inspired 300 students at Tacoma’s Arlington Elementary School via a live Skype session from Polar Bear House.
An extra bonus? She got to be in Churchill for Halloween, where the entire community takes to the streets to ward off curious polar bears so kids can safely trick or treat. It’s her favorite holiday.
“I packed my bear-ear headband to wear that night,” she says with a smile. “And I’m looking forward to bringing what I learn back to Tacoma.”