Photo: Jim Schulz / Chicago Zoological Society

Polar Bear Keeper Exchange

By Marissa Krouse, Programs Manager



19 Jun 2017

Polar Bears International has long had a highly effective secret weapon: The zoos and aquariums in our Arctic Ambassador Center network amplify our outreach on climate change and how we can work together on solutions. They also work to set high standards for polar bears in zoos, regularly participating in zoo-based conservation science and continually striving to improve the overall well-being of the animals in their care.

In the spirit of fostering a healthy exchange of information and to support the important work zoos are doing, Polar Bears International recently arranged for a keeper from Mulhouse Zoological and Botanical Park in France to visit two zoos in the U.S. The goal was to learn about North American polar bear care standards, training techniques, and climate messaging to share back home.

Cooperative Spirit

Lead Keeper/Curator Marine Bacconais began her training at the Como Park Zoo in St. Paul, Minnesota, in early May and then traveled to the San Diego Zoo in California. Now that she’s back home, she hasn’t wasted any time in helping others benefit from her experiences. Marine has already given presentations about  the exchange in several settings, sharing her new-found knowledge with others.

Marine’s  recent trip to the U.S was just one part of PBl’s  collaborative efforts to share information with European animal care and management teams. Marine is now in a position to contribute to the planning and facilitation of Polar Bears International’s first  European Polar Bear Husbandry Training Workshop, which will be hosted by Yorkshire Wildlife Park in South Yorkshire, England in October. Marine will bring a unique perspective to the workshop, along with her leadership and language skills.

The European workshop will bring polar bear keepers and managers together to advance husbandry training in participating zoos and to collectively improve polar bear well-being and conservation research efforts. At PBI, we strive to bring partners together and encourage science with direct conservation applications. We also understand the value that cooperative training has in balancing animal welfare with meaningful science.

As a former keeper myself, I understand the importance of hands-on training sessions and time with peers. As a team member of an organization that conducts, supports, and shares scientific research that informs polar bear conservation, my colleagues and I  appreciate the eagerness and  generosity of all contributing partners. Thank you for recognizing the value of collaboration and coordination on behalf of polar bears--because together we are stronger!

Thanks to the many advisors representing institutions around the world who have worked on this project: San Diego Zoo, Como Zoo, Oregon Zoo, Vienna Zoo, Yorkshire Wildlife Park, Mulhouse Zoo, Stuttgart Zoo, Ouwehands Zoo, European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA), Munich Zoo, Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) and the Polar Bear SSP.

Below are snapshots of Marine’s experience. I hope you enjoy this glimpse into her world!

Como Zoo

By Allison Jungheim, Senior Zookeeper / Training Coordinator, Como Zoo

Photo: Allison Jungheim

A Como Zoo zookeeper demonstrates training techniques that allow polar bears to participate voluntarily in their own healthcare.

Como Zoo was excited and honored to have Lead Keeper/Curator Marine Baconnais from Mulhouse Zoo in France visit in early May thanks to Polar Bears International.  Marine worked closely with Senior Zookeeper/Training Coordinator Allison Jungheim and her team of six polar bear zookeepers on all things polar bear, covering topics ranging from starting a training program, to training for medical behaviors, to effective ways to talk to zoo visitors about climate change and its effects on polar bears in the wild.

“It was great to be able to collaborate with Marine and hear about her facilities and polar bears. I hope that we were able to provide her with information to bring back to her team in Mulhouse to help further improve polar bear training and husbandry care there,” said Allison.  

Thanks to Polar Bears International for providing this opportunity to create a global connection for polar bears!

San Diego Zoo

By Nicki Boyd, Behavior Husbandry Manager, San Diego Zoo

We had a great time planning for and hosting Marine Bacconnais from the Mulhouse Zoo in France at the San Diego Zoo.  After Marine’s training at the Como Zoo, I was able to connect with my contact there, Allison Jungheim, about their time together before Marine arrived in San Diego. This allowed us to build on her experience.  Allison and I had already worked together online. We planned a schedule that would start with “beginning training” at the  Como Zoo and then build with advanced training here at the San Diego Zoo.

San Diego Zoo polar bear keepers work with bears to cooperatively train them to wear collar cameras

Photo: Nicki Boyd

San Diego Zoo polar bear keepers work with bears to cooperatively train them to wear collar cameras. This will help scientists understand how polar bears in seasonal ice areas where the sea ice melts completely in summer spend their time and energy when forced ashore.

On Wednesday morning we started off in the polar bear exhibit area, showing Marine our GPS collar training and a mock blood draw (useful for health care).  After viewing  the polar bear facility and seeing a variety of training sessions, we moved to a conference room to catch up and begin other levels of training.  First we had our nutritionist give a wonderful PowerPoint on bear nutrition and how we seasonally manage our grizzly bears. This has helped reduce obesity and keeps the brother bears from fighting over food; it also helps prevent food waste in the winter season.  After that presentation our public relations spokesperson, Rick Schwartz, coached Marine on public speaking and how to get her point across, Marine commented on how helpful this was as she prepares to lead workshops in the future.

Photo: Nicki Boyd

The San Diego Zoo’s polar bear training wall provides opportunities for educational outreach with the community.

Over the next few days, Marine observed training sessions with polar bears at our public training wall. She was able to see how our polar bear keepers interact with the public, showing off bear behavior and weaving in conservation messages to inspire guests to reduce their carbon footprint. She spent time with Dr. Megan Owen going over research priorities. She also watched me give a “Welfare Enhancements through Training” PowerPoint to our horticulture department and see various other training sessions, including giving a  polar bear an ultrasound. She also observed our animal ambassador training and went on an overview tour of the San Diego Zoo. In addition, we shared various documents on training, safety, approval forms and videos.

On Friday afternoon Marine gave a PowerPoint presentation to a group of animal care professionals and researchers.  She focused on what they do at Mulhouse, what she learned at the Como Zoo and San Diego Zoo, and what she hopes to take back to France.  She did a great job and everyone had some good questions for her and we all learned and shared ideas.

Since all work and no play isn’t good for anyone, we made sure Marine got to see the rest of the zoo and some of San Diego. She was able to see California sea lions and harbor seals along the coast and even attended our Bowling for Rhinos even, organized by our local American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) Chapter. She got some great fundraising ideas as well. We really enjoyed our time together and look forward to helping advance polar bear care in other zoos around the world; I can see this time together will be very beneficial to a long term relationship with Marine, the Mulhouse Zoo, Como Zoo and of course Polar Bears International.  I look forward to helping teach a class in October at the Yorkshire Wildlife Park and getting to work with Marine and the team who helped put together our Train the Trainer polar bear program.

Mulhouse Zoological and Botanical Garden

By Brice Lefaux, Director of the Mulhouse Zoo

“I am proud that the Mulhouse Zoo could send Marine, one of our staff members, to gain information on polar bear medical training at the Como Zoo and San Diego Zoo. As zoos, we consider our role in polar bear conservation our top priority. The ability to get close to a polar bear in our institution will provide a well of knowledge that the training can tap into. This will allow scientists to acquire a better understanding of the polar bear‘s biology and physiology. In addition, we can better conserve what we know.Moreover, being able to  share ideas and knowledge on a global scale with a common aim was a profoundly human experience. I am proud that  I can tell my staff, my visitors, my community  and myself that Mulhouse Zoo contributes to polar bear conservation through this program with Polar Bears International!”