A tundra trip

Teen with affinity for animals is eager to share her experiences studying polar bears in Canada

December 14, 2008|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Baltimore Sun

It isn't a typical day when a Maryland teenager wakes up and sees a polar bear outside her window.

But that's what happened to Alexandra Van Dusen.

On another day, while Van Dusen and a group of students cooked hamburgers on an outside grill, one polar bear scared away another one, she said.

"The bears don't get too close to one another unless they're mating," said Van Dusen, a 17-year-old junior at John Carroll School in Bel Air. "They were fun to watch."

Van Dusen was able to observe the polar bears when she attended a leadership camp offered by Polar Bear International, a group that supports research projects benefiting the world's polar bears.

She traveled to Churchill, Manitoba, a Canadian town on the shore of Hudson Bay.

The small community is famous for the polar bears that migrate from inland toward the shore in the autumn, leading to the nickname "Polar Bear Capital of the World."

Van Dusen was chosen for the program after being interviewed by Maryland Zoo personnel. She is one of several youth volunteers at the zoo.

"She stood out because she didn't see herself as a leader," said Kristi Giles, the manager of volunteers, one of three people who interviewed Van Dusen. "But after interviewing her, we realized that she definitely is a leader."

To illustrate their decision, Giles gave an example about Van Dusen attending band camp her freshman year of high school.

The teenager had a tough time adjusting, Giles said. However, during her sophomore year, she mentored freshmen.

"She's the type of person who sees a need, steps up and guides others," Giles said.

To participate, Van Dusen, who was sponsored by the Maryland Zoo along with about 15 other high-school juniors, went to Churchill during polar bear migration to experience life in the tundra.

While there, the students met field scientists, visited a maternal den site, discussed climate change, observed polar bears in their natural habitat and watched residents coexist with the bears.

A typical day during the adventure started about 6:30 a.m. The students ate breakfast, then went out in tundra buggies to search for polar bears, she said.

During the week, the students and scientists spotted 11 polar bears, including a mother and her cubs, Van Dusen said.

"Sometimes when the groups come out, they don't see any polar bears," she said. "And sometimes, they see two or three. We were fortunate to see so many."

Going into the trip, Van Dusen had limited knowledge of polar bears, she said.

But that quickly changed.

"I learned a lot about polar bears and the climate change," said Van Dusen, who participates in band and the outreach club at John Carroll. "Our days were jam-packed with learning."

For starters, they read a book called Impacts of a Warming Arctic and did projects, she said.

During one lesson,they learned about the polar bear's diet. For instance, polar bears need to eat the fat of ringed seals, she said.

"The polar bears don't eat the muscle and meat of a seal, they just eat the fat," she said. "They need the fat so they can gain a lot of weight."

They not only learned about polar bears, but also how to pass on and share the knowledge they gained, she said.

Although her knowledge of polar bears was limited, they weren't her first exposure to animals, she said.

As an elementary school student, she cared for the animals in the classroom. Then the summer before she started high school, she attended a four-week summer camp at the Maryland Zoo. During her time there, she discovered she had an affinity for working with animals; her favorite animals are the big cats.

"The camp showed me all there is at the zoo," said Van Dusen of Towson. "I enjoyed working with the animals and helping to take care of them."

The stint at the zoo led to an offer to join the junior zookeeper crew. In that capacity, Van Dusen goes to the zoo bi-weekly, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., during which time she shadows adult zookeepers.

She cleans and watches training, she said. She helps with the rhinoceroses that are trained to understand commands to allow for medical treatment.

She's great, said Giles, who joined the zoo staff about the same time that Van Dusen began volunteering there.

She was placed in the African water hole, which includes the rhinos, zebras and leopards, Giles said. While there, she assists with animal care, cleans the cages and the living areas of the animals, and helps with training the rhinos.

"Alexandra is a great asset to the zoo," Giles said.

When she returned from Canada, Van Dusen held a luncheon for some zoo employees and volunteers and gave a presentation about what she had learned. In coming weeks, she plans to give a presentation on polar bears and climate change at a local elementary school.

"I want to tell everyone I can about what I learned," she said. "Going on this trip was one of the most wonderful experiences of my life. I learned so much to bring back and tell people. I want to do my part to make sure polar bears don't become extinct."

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