Pittsburgh Zoo mascot braves heat to spread word about climate change
Tessa Flannery, dressed as a polar bear, greets people at Point State Park during the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta on Wednesday.
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If you thought the heat was unbearable Wednesday, get this: Tessa Flannery worked a nine-hour shift in the sun at the EQT Pittsburgh Three Rivers Regatta -- wearing a 20-pound cotton-linen polar bear suit.
"Today, it's hot," said Ms. Flannery, 26, of Butler, as the mercury passed 90 degrees and she took a short break from her work as the main attraction at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium booth. "Even if it's hot, you've got to be like, 'Come on, everybody!' "
Once back in the suit, she wordlessly invited even the shy kids to approach.
"Can I get a bear hug, too?" one little girl squealed.
Ms. Flannery, an actress, is one of two part-time mascots for zoo events and the only one who worked on the Fourth of July.
Sometimes she's a shark -- that costume has a fan in its head, which is intermittently operational -- but the bear was clearly the symbol du jour.
The mascot's purpose, after all, is to promote the zoo's 1 Degree of Change program, which encourages people to make adjustments in their lives to help slow climate change.
"There's little things we can all do to help the environment," said Margie Marks, the zoo's curator of conservation education. "One degree warmer, in lots of different environments, would make a lot of difference" for the worse.
A board game set up next to Ms. Flannery had kids read cards that encouraged them to do things such as turn off lights, unplug chargers and reuse bags and water containers. When a child picked a card for, say, having his parents drive him to school, a block of fake ice was removed from the game table, endangering a precariously perched plastic bear.
Although police were soon to declare a heat index of 104, Ms. Flannery insisted that she was not, personally, endangered. On Sunday, she made it through a similar shift by drinking so much water that she was sure she gained weight. On Wednesday, the final day of the five-day event, she took occasional breaks in a natural gas-fueled Ford Transit Connect, donated to the zoo last month by EQT Corp., and then wrapped her forehead in a cool, wet bandana before suiting up again.
She said she joined the zoo event staff nearly 18 months ago and got the job because she had more than the bare minimum of experience. As a student at the University of Glasgow in 2008, she walked a 10-kilometer race in a brown bear costume to promote her student theater group. Zoo officials had no way of verifying that the photos Ms. Flannery showed of a hiking bear were really her, but they took it on faith.
Since then, she has played a role in teaching environmental consciousness, she said, and has learned a lot. For instance, she now uses the Seafood Watch card distributed by the zoo, in a partnership with California's Monterey Bay Aquarium, which helps consumers pick fish that's healthy and sustainably harvested.
Her part-time work as a bear or shark allows her to act on local stages, including the Kean Theatre in Richland. Although she has no lines when playing the bear -- she opts not to even growl -- the role is enriching, she said.
"It's great to be performing in that way, working with children," she said. "Almost everybody is excited to see you."
First Published July 5, 2012 12:00 am