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Behind-the-scenes with Animal Behaviourist Dr. Suzanne MacDonald

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Dr. Suzanne MacDonald is a professor in the Department of Psychology at York University and a member of the Polar Bear Habitat Foundation Board. Recently, we got the chance to catch up with her and ask the questions we’ve been dying to know about.


As a Professor at York University, what do you teach?

I teach courses in Animal Behaviour, and Comparative Cognition (which looks at how different species think).   My students are in Psychology, as well as Biology.  The study of animal behaviour is quite interdisciplinary!


What made you become an animal behaviourist?

I actually didn’t know there was such a thing!  I have always been interested in animal behaviour and conservation…I started a Conservation Club when I was 9 years old, and began lobbying zoos to improve conditions for their animals.  Once I was at university, I studied genetics, zoology and psychology.   I did my PhD work with pigeons, which was fun, but I really found my niche when I was doing postdoctoral work at UBC in Vancouver.  I volunteered to help out at the Stanley Park Zoo, studying their animals and working on exhibit improvements, and the rest, as they say, was history!  When I moved to York University in Toronto, the first thing I did was to volunteer as the Behaviourist at the Toronto Zoo.


Where has your career taken you in the world?  What animals have you worked with?

I have been extremely lucky, and have traveled the world meeting interesting animals (the human variety as well!).  I have worked at field sites in northern Kenya, South Africa, Costa Rica and Southern Ontario, as well as at many zoos in North America and the Caribbean.   I’ve worked with species ranging from marmosets to elephants, from pigeons to polar bears…you name it, and I’ve probably worked with it!  Currently, I have projects underway with orang-utans, gorillas, dogs, turtles, horses, lions, hyenas, raccoons, pandas, and of course, polar bears.


Why polar bears?

I have a particular fondness for large carnivores, especially in captivity.  Many other species, like social primates, live quite well in captivity but large carnivores like polar bears and tigers are more difficult to keep happy, simply because they are solitary and range over many kilometres in the wild.  It is difficult to replicate those conditions in zoos, so the challenge is to figure out ways to keep them interested and engaged, and let them behave as normally as possible.


What interested you in becoming a Director at the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat?

Because I’m interested in the welfare of large carnivores, like polar bears, in captivity, I have been involved in the Cochrane Polar Bear Habitat since before it was built.  I met with town representatives to discuss their idea for building a facility, and I was hooked right then and there!  Seeing the facility built and housing such lovely, happy bears is a real joy—and so it was my honour to become a Director when asked.


What do you think you can learn from Henry, Ganuk and Inukshuk?

Being able to watch three male bears at one time—and now to be able to watch two of them interact with each other—is a rare privilege.   We can learn so much from them—things that we would never be able to observe in the wild.  Personally, I am really interested in their social interactions, given that it is not common to see adult male bears together, and I really love to watch them playing.


What makes the Polar Bear Habitat special?

The Habitat is special because it allows the polar bears to behave like, well, polar bears.  The enclosures are HUGE compared to zoos, and having access to the lake is unprecedented…we will learn a lot from watching them explore that environment, in summer as well as the winter months.  Because PBH is in Cochrane, the bears are able to experience real winter weather, with lots of snow, something that more southern facilities just can’t offer.  And of course, the people who work at PBH are extraordinary, dedicating their lives to keeping the bears happy, safe, and secure.   It is a place like no other!


You and a group of students were just recently at the Polar Bear Habitat, can you tell us why?

I’ve been working with an amazing group of students this year, all of whom are part of York’s Lassonde School of Engineering.  Each of the students has volunteered to be part of this pilot project where the polar bears are the ‘client’, and the students must design things to improve the bears’ lives in some way.  We have been meeting regularly, coming up with ideas of things that the bears might enjoy, so it was great fun to be able to bring a few students up to the Habitat recently so they could meet their ‘clients’ in person, and see the Habitat.  Now the students are hard at work honing their designs, and after consulting with the keepers, we will put them into production and implement them this spring.  So stay tuned for updates to follow!

What do you think is the biggest threat to polar bears?

I think climate change is the obvious threat to polar bears, and every other species, especially in the north, where the ecosystems are sensitive to the slightest variations.  When the ice forms late, the bears aren’t able to forage normally, and we will see more and more of them starving, or coming south to find food.    It’s a disastrous situation—and PBH has a big role to play, now and in the future, to help mitigate the effects.


Do you believe human care facilities can play a more active role in creating solutions for species at risk?  If so, how?

Related to my answer above, absolutely, PBH and other facilities are vital in preserving biodiversity and keeping species from extinction as our last remaining “wild” spaces disappear or are  changed due to global warming.   What we learn about species’ nutritional and veterinary needs as well as behaviour will help us maintain the last remaining wild populations.   And perhaps just as important is the educational aspect…facilities like PBH will be the best way that people can learn about polar bears, meet them up close, and become aware of the issues facing them in the wild.    Watching videos on the internet will never replace the experience of looking a polar bear in the eye!

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