Metro-East Living

Althoff graduate is a polar bear expert

Lisa Lidgus has been given outstanding employee award at St. Louis Zoo

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For Kali, Tuesday afternoon was a balmy, sunny 22 degrees. The 3-year-old polar bear nuzzled a head of romaine lettuce from between some rocks, then crunched away. Finished in a bite or two, he sauntered to the edge of the pool and gracefully tipped his 1,000 pounds into the water.

The bundled-up humans in the lower, split-level observation area grinned as dark snout and eyes, a mass of white fur and giant claws tilted and glided by.

“They’re something to watch in the water,” said Lisa Lidgus, framed by thousands of bubbles that rose behind her after the bear hit the water of his 50,000-gallon “sea.”

Kali (pronounced CUH-lee) moved into the state-of-the-art habitat at the St. Louis Zoo last May. Lisa, who has worked for the zoo for 14 years, has traveled to Alaska where Kali was born and orphaned, and spends her days helping educate the public about animals like polar bears.

In December, the 31-year-old Althoff Catholic High School graduate received the zoo’s 2015 Hermann Foundation Outstanding Employee Award. Her official title is conservation education liaison.

Compassion, empathy and a passion for her work are evident in everything Lisa does.

Louise Bradshaw on Lisa Lidgus

Louise Bradshaw, the zoo’s director of education, said Lisa offers that “rare combination of creativity and diplomacy” that allows her to listen to and work well with many people and still produce an “excellent educational program. ... Compassion, empathy and a passion for her work are evident in everything Lisa does.”

One of her favorite projects has been to be part of a special conservation effort between the zoo and villages in Alaska where there is a polar bear population.

Previously a keeper of carnivore bears and then rhinos, hippos and elephants, Lisa moved into the education department in 2009.

“I missed working with people more,” she said. “I was greedy and wanted the best of both worlds.”

Now Lisa has that. She is one of four liaisons who works with the zoo’s animal divisions. Her focus is with the carnivore division. Her job is to help get the message out to the public about these animals. One way she does that is to collaborate with carnivore keepers and other experts, get their input and create programs and activities that can be used by schools, children and families.

“It’s a new concept in the education department,” she said. “It gives us the opportunity to spread the word, say, in a camp. ... One of the things I do most are animal awareness days. Did you know that the end of February (Feb. 27) is International Polar Bear Day?”

1,000 Pounds Kali the polar bear weighs now

14 Years Lisa Lidgus has worked for the St. Louis Zoo

Lisa, who was raised in Fairmont City, is a 2002 graduate of Althoff and a 2006 graduate of Southern Illinois University Carbondale with a degree in zoology. She met her husband, Jonathan, when they were college students working as summer camp counselors at the zoo. He is director of residential life at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Married eight years, they live in St. Louis and are expecting their first child, a boy, Feb. 6.

Her parents, Jerry and Barb Hasenstab, who live in Fairmont City, aren’t surprised by the honor given to their daughter.

“I had never heard of the award until she told me she was nominated. But when I did, I thought, ‘Yes. She deserves it.’ She’s always loved animals,” said her mom.

Lisa said the new baby will join two dogs, a bearded dragon, a love bird and some fish at home.

The zoo began working with the Alaska Nanuuq Commission in 2013 to get insight on creating a state-of-the-art habitat called McDonnell Polar Bear Point. The commission works to conserve the Arctic ecosystem, especially the management of the polar bear population there.

Lisa was brought in to do educational outreach, and in the fall of 2014, visited four remote communities along the northwestern Alaska coast where residents hunt and fish to live. One of those villages was Point Lay. It was there in 2013 that villagers first cared for an orphaned cub they named Kali, the Iñupiaq Eskimo word for their town. Kali would eventually come to St. Louis after living at the Buffalo Zoo in Buffalo, N.Y.

“A priority with the villages was to work with the children,” Lisa said. The zoo provided resources so students in those communities could learn how to create a video in which residents would talk about living in Alaska, polar bears and how climate change is affecting man and animal.

“There was a lot of interest and questions while I was there,” she said. “It was neat to sit down and talk about the bears, hear their stories, talk about the exhibit here in St. Louis.”

Just getting to that part of northwestern Alaska was an adventure, Lisa said.

“Everywhere we went, it was by bush plane. There were no roads,” she said. “We stayed in schools — no hotels where we were.” To get to the island village of Little Diomede, population 80, for example, she had to take her first helicopter ride — across the Bering Strait.

Last April, Lisa made a trip back, traveling 3,500 miles to the village of Wales, population 150, on the Seward Peninsula where the residents “were the brave ones who wanted to do the video first.”

Today, when you enter the zoo area of Polar Bear Point where you can see Kali swim underwater, Alaskan villagers of all ages tell their stories via overhead monitors.

Lisa said contact with the villages continues and students have had the chance to see what the polar bear habitat looks like long-distance.

She didn’t see any polar bears on either trip to Alaska, which wasn’t unusual.

“The Wales community hadn’t seen a bear in almost two years,” she said. “There are a lot there, but not a lot of ice that would lead a bear to that area. ... But I learned a lot and met amazing kids and incredible people.”

Suzanne Boyle: 618-239-2664, @BoyleSuzanne

Did you know ...?

  • Polar bears and penguins don’t live anywhere near each other — except at the St. Louis Zoo. The bears are Arctic animals and live in the Northern Hemisphere. Nearly all penguins live in the Southern Hemisphere.
  • Polar bears’ closest relatives are brown and black bears.
  • Polar bears do not hibernate, though pregnant bears will “den up” in ice caves for three months to give birth and nurture newborns.
  • An adult male can weigh up to 1,300 pounds. Kali, a 3-year-old who lives at the St. Louis Zoo, now weighs 1,000 pounds. He weighed about 850 pounds when he arrived last May.
  • Polar bears have oversized feet that act like snowshoes, distributing their great weight as they move. Special bumps on their footpads, called dermal papillae, keep them from sliding on the ice.
  • They also have a 4-inch layer of fat and two layers of fur to keep them warm. Their coat is oily and water-repellant.
  • Their shape is called fusiform, which means their body is tapered at both the head and the tail, a common feature in aquatic animals.
  • A polar bear’s nostrils close when underwater.
  • In the wild, their diet consists of ringed seals and sometimes the larger bearded ice seals. Polar bears typically eat only the fat and skin, leaving the rest as food for scavengers.
  • Polar bears have such an acute sense of smell they can detect a seal through the ice 10 to 20 miles away.
  • Highly intelligent, to capture a meal they sniff out seals then wait at their breathing holes in the ice for them. Using their great weight, they pounce on the hole, widening it and grabbing their prey.
  • In captivity, polar bears also will eat fruits and vegetables.
  • In the wild, a polar bear’s lifespan is 15 to 18 years. In captivity, it can be the late 30s.
  • Polar bears’ biggest enemy is habitat loss from climate change.

St. Louis Zoo and Polar Bears International