Meet Alicia Shelley: An Arctic Ambassador

Alicia on tundra buggy.

Alicia Shelley is a zookeeper in the North America exhibit at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. For two years, she served as an in-field ambassador for Polar Bears International in Churchill, Manitoba. Each year, she spent two weeks on the tundra buggies that serve as polar bear watching platforms for the tourists, educating them about polar bears, climate change, and the role that PBI and zoos play in helping these beautiful animals.

We were lucky enough to interview Alicia about her experiences in Churchill with the bears!

BPPB: How did you become interested in polar bears?

AS: I have always wanted to work with animals and I work with a wide variety in North America [at the Columbus zoo] and love them all, but I have developed a special love for bears- black, brown, grizzly and polar. It was amazing to learn about the polar bears and find out all of the differences between them and the brown bears that I was not aware of before. Polar Bears evolved from grizzly bears over 100,000 years ago and their bodies have done an amazing job of adapting to the extremes of the Arctic. The pads of their feet are covered with fur and have small bumps on them to help them grip the ice. Their fur has a fluffy undercoat against their skin and clear, hollow guard hairs on top of that help to hold in heat and make them more buoyant when they swim. We could also talk about their amazing bodies, especially pregnant females that go for 6 months without food while they are nursing cubs!

BPPB: What was the purpose of your trip to Churchill?

Tundra buggy.

AS: In 2007 I applied for a Polar Bears International program offered to women in the field of zookeeping to be in-field ambassadors on the tundra buggies in Churchill. The application process included a video of yourself explaining why you would make a good arctic ambassador. I was so happy and surprised to be chosen! Our focus on the buggies was to talk to guests about the importance of what PBI is doing, the relationship between that and the research that is being done in zoos to help the wild population of bears and the trouble bears are in now and what we can do to help. We also challenged them to go home, share their experience and become arctic ambassadors as well! Throughout each season, the six of us talked to about 4,000 guests!

BPPB: Tell us more about Polar Bears International.

AS: Now that I am involved with PBI, I can’t say enough good things about them! They are a non-profit organization, and no administrative costs are covered by donations. Every penny of donations goes to support polar bears. They are an amazing organization with a group of people that treat you like family and truly believe that each of us can make a difference and even help you to believe it yourself.

BPPB: What was it like in Churchill?

Amazing, beautiful, amazing! I always imagined polar bears in the snow, but the colors of the tundra are so awesome.

While I was there, the bears were mainly conserving energy- just hanging out waiting for the bay to freeze so they could go out and hunt. I had the opportunity to do my two favorite things- watch bears and talk to people about bears!

BPPB: Why are polar bears in trouble?

AS: Polar bears rely on ice for everything- breeding, feeding, and in most cases, that is also where they have their maternity dens. As a result of climate change, we have lost 3 weeks worth of ice over the last 15 years. It is crucial that we stop this rapid loss or we will lose the polar bears.

BPPB: What is the Columbus Zoo doing to help polar bears?

AS: The zoo and PBI have been amazing in supporting me to travel to Churchill the past two years and I have been lucky enough to have been offered an opportunity this October to go out on buggy one and do conferencing classrooms from the tundra! The zoo also sponsored a teenager or leadership camp last year and we have both made a commitment to become arctic ambassadors within our communities. The Polar Frontier exhibit at the Columbus zoo opened in the spring of 2010 and has lots of information for the public on what they can do to help.

BPPB: What can I do to help polar bears?

AS: Plant trees! We need to offset the CO2 emissions by getting as much oxygen into the environment as possible. Recycle and BUY recycled! Look around your house to see what you can leave unplugged or plugged into a power strip and unplugged until you use it- this will reduce CO2 AND save you money on your electric bill!

BPPB: What one thing would you like everyone to know about polar bears?

AS: They need our help and as my son says; “Little hands CAN make a difference!”- Tell everyone to “Plant a Tree for Me” and guarantee that the polar bears will be around for generations to come!

BPPB: Do you have any interesting stories from your time in Churchill?

AS: Lots, but remind me and I will tell you some- I have to feed the bears now!

Thanks to Alicia for answering our questions!

This article was written by Jessica Fries-Gaither. For more information, see the Beyond Penguins and Polar Bears Contributors page. Email Jessica at

Copyright August 2011 – The Ohio State University. This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 0733024. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. This work is licensed under an Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported Creative Commons license.