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Turning the zoo into a classroom

Tiffany Vanderwerf cannot imagine a life without animals, a fascination that led her to volunteer at the Buffalo Zoo more than 15 years ago when she was a graduate student at the University at Buffalo.

Today Vanderwerf is 41, a wife and mother of two, and the zoo's curator of education. Last October, she visited the polar bear capital of the world in Churchill, Manitoba, Canada, for a week of intensive study. She expects to share what she learned with schoolchildren during a series of programs marking Earth Day on April 22.

>People Talk: Tell me about the zoo's polar bear initiative.

Tiffany Vanderwerf: We have become an Arctic Ambassador site for Polar Bears International, a conservation organization dedicated to saving polar bears. The way to do it is to stop climate change, or reduce our carbon footprint.

>PT: How can people reduce their carbon footprint?

TV: One school project we did on March 1 was "Bundle Up for Polar Bears Day," and the idea was to turn thermostats down from 70 to 68 degrees for one day, and the kids would symbolically wear hoodies, sweaters, sweat shirts.

>PT: What's the quickest way to a child's mind?

TV: Through play, and using the right language in the context of play. It certainly doesn't hurt to use animals, too. All kids have this fascination with animals, whether they think they're scared of them or love them. It's an immediate hook.

>PT: Would you call yourself a citizen scientist?

TV: Now I would, but before [I came to] the zoo I was more an actual scientist. I studied neurobiology and animal behavior at Cornell, and followed it up with graduate work at the University at Buffalo. Animals have acute sensory systems, and their behaviors are very in tune with their environment. I tried to figure out what in their brains made that possible.

>PT: Do frogs have a brain?

TV: Yes, a really well-developed brain, as a matter of fact. They run on instinct rather than on thought or learning.

>PT: Your family must have had many pets.

TV: We raised dogs, mostly Shetland sheepdogs. A lot of people call them miniature collies. My mom was very animal oriented, and we lived in Warsaw. My backyard was a gully. Across the street was a pine forest. Right next to us was a cow pasture. I grew up around nature.

>PT: During 15 years at the zoo, you have seen so many changes. Which is most striking?

TV: The Rainforest Falls. It was the zoo's biggest undertaking, the biggest transformation I've seen. It's immersive. The newest exhibit is the Heritage Farm. All those animal species are new to the zoo, like our mule, our Devon cow and Berkshire pigs. The idea was to show the kind of animals that would have been on Western New York farms in the mid-1800s.

>PT: Tell me about an underappreciated resident at the zoo.

TV: Our vampire bats. There are so many myths about vampire bats that people don't realize they have the most amazing social lives. They take care of their elderly just as well as they take care of their babies. So when vampire bats get older and may be unable to fly out for dinner, others will bring the food back for them.

>PT: Tell me about your secret spot at the zoo.

TV: The Heritage Farm, because the education department was solely responsible for it. I like going in the barn and saying hi to the animals, petting Candy Ann the mule and just relaxing.

>PT: How does the zoo function as a conservationist?

TV: One of our Citizen Science projects is the detection of amphibian chytrid fungus, which has been wiping out amphibian species, especially in the tropics. We wanted to see if the fungus was in New York State, so we started training people in 2009 to test amphibians. Three of the four sites we tested came back positive. Now that we know it's here, we want to know if amphibians are dying from it. Many scientists think it started with African Clawed Frogs, which were exported everywhere for pregnancy tests.

>PT: Tell me a recent discovery in the animal kingdom.

TV: The truly new species are often from the ocean. During the Gulf oil spill I remember hearing about these incredible Pancake Batfish that walk along the sea floor. Their fins almost look like hands, and they skitter along the bottom.

>PT: What have you learned from working with animals?

TV: They are oftentimes smarter and more well-equipped to deal with the world than we are. That's what keeps me fascinated. I love humans. Our brains are absolutely amazing, but there are so many other ways that we are weaker. It's all about survival, and they have it down.

e-mail: jkwiatkowski@buffnews.com

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