U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers release a seal pup rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center into the wild. (Courtesy photo / ASC)

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service volunteers release a seal pup rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center into the wild. (Courtesy photo / ASC)

Social creatures: Wildlife groups use internet to spread reach

A global audience for America’s wildest wildlife.

Alaska’s geographical isolation means that organizations have to get a little creative when it comes to raising awareness about their mission.

For some, that could be as simple as keeping an active presence on social media about what they’re up to.

For others, it could be running the now-internationally-famous Fat Bear Week competition.

“The first fully fledged Fat Bear Week was 2015,” said Mike Fitz, a naturalist who helped bring the battle of the bulkiest bears to the public. “It was almost like a spur of the moment thing.”

[Final cruise ship of 2021 leaves Juneau]

While then working at Katmai National Park and Preserve, which is located is located across a strait from Kodiak Island, part of Fitz’s job was looking at the comments people left on the park’s webcams.

Brown bear 32-Chunk, resident of Katmai National Park and Preserve, was one of the (losing) competitors for Fat Bear Week 2021. (Courtesy photo / Explore)

Brown bear 32-Chunk, resident of Katmai National Park and Preserve, was one of the (losing) competitors for Fat Bear Week 2021. (Courtesy photo / Explore)

“It was a light bulb moment. “Wouldn’t it be neat to get people to evaluate the relative fatness of these bears?” Fitz said. “It was really quite amateurish back then.”

Katmai is the ideal park to host Fat Bear Week for several reasons, Fitz said, with the length of the bear’s fishing season being the largest. Bears fish from late spring to October or so, Fitz said, allowing the park’s personnel and webcams to capture them from their leanest spring weight to their heftiest in the autumn. Now, the denizens of the internet can go online to vote for which bear they think is the fattest in a single-elimination bracket run over the course of a week.

“Katmai doesn’t necessarily need to advertise that it has bears. This is a way to have fun and celebrate the success of the ecosystem. Bears are captivating animals. They’re charismatic animals. It’s easy for people to be captivated by a single photo of a brown bear,” Fitz said. “It’s an opportunity to celebrate an ecosystem that’s functioning at its fully realized potential.”

Fitz now works with Explore, an organization that partners with the National Park Service and KNP to run Fat Bear Week. This year’s iteration of the bracket saw more than 800,000 votes for the fattest furry boys and girls, Fitz said. Bears eating sockeye salmon will pack on hundreds of pounds before the winter, Fitz said,

“It’s very easy to focus on the bears and their stories. But the unsung heroes of Fat Bear Week are the salmon,” Fitz said. “We wouldn’t have the ability to celebrate these giant, fat bears without them. The salmon runs support this density of bears at Katmai.”

A sea otter pup rescued in October is being rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center. (Courtesy photo / ASC)

A sea otter pup rescued in October is being rehabilitated at the Alaska SeaLife Center. (Courtesy photo / ASC)

Speaking of the water

In a different part of Alaska, refining their social media use technique helped a different wildlife organization expand its following and spread adorable otter photos across the world.

“It’s definitely super critical. I started here in 2017 and on Instagram we had like 2,200 followers,” said Chloe Rossman, media and communications manager for the Alaska SeaLife Center, in a phone interview. “Basically, we changed everything.”

While the center isn’t operating on the same international level as Fat Bear Week, its reach is global, propelled to niche popularity by one particular animal: sea otters.

“Alaska actually holds 90%vof the sea otter population in the world right now. It’s really rare for people to see them outside of Alaska,” Rossman said. “(People think) oh my gosh, it’s fluffy! I want to hold it. But we really try to make it clear — do not pick them up.”

Posts populate in weird ways, becoming popular in sometimes-surprising locations across the globe from Japan to Texas to Australia, Rossman said.

“We had this octopus video and that was really huge in England. We had a seal video and that was really popular in India, a bunch of areas in India,” Rossman said. “Sometimes I understand it, and sometimes I don’t.”

Bing a nonprofit, which does wildlife rescue in addition to being an aquarium and marine research center, the center relies on donations and grants to operate, Rossman said. According to its website, it’s the only organization in Alaska that combines all of those roles.

“We really try to do a big giving Tuesday campaign. Since we are a nonprofit, we rely on those donations. Feeding our animals and paying our staff, that’s all from donors,” Rossman said. “This year we also tried a different tactic that worked really well. Telling people (about animal rescues) right away, even though sometimes we have to tell people (the animal) didn’t make it, we had a lot more donations coming in.”

A Northern Harrier rescued by members of the Juneau Raptor Center awaits transport to the Alaska Raptor Center. (Courtesy photo / JRC)

A Northern Harrier rescued by members of the Juneau Raptor Center awaits transport to the Alaska Raptor Center. (Courtesy photo / JRC)

Eagle eye focus

For an even closer-to-home example, the Juneau Raptor Center uses its social media presence to help rescue injured birds.

“Not everyone knows to call us. Sometimes people will post on the community page ‘Who do I call?’” said Kathy Benner, manager of the raptor center, in a phone interview. “We’ve rescued a lot of birds that way, where people use social media to contact us. It’s really useful for that.”

While much more locally focused than Fat Bear Week or the Alaska SeaLife Center, the Juneau Raptor Center uses its platforms to work efficiently within the community it operates within every day, Benner said.

“I can go back to before when there was no Facebook. No one knew what you were doing. Social media has opened up things hugely. Being able to put the story out the next day, and update people, is great,” Benner said. “A big plus on Facebook has been the donate button. That has been huge for us. It’s been such a benefit.”

The Juneau Raptor Center, like the SeaLife Center, relies on donations and has been particularly hard-hit by the dearth of tourists over the last two summers of pandemic, Benner said. Their online presence and donations have helped keep the lights on. Even with that hyperlocal focus, Benner said, their presence online has branched out.

“I’ve made connections with people from all over the place. It’s not just Alaskans. It’s all over the world,” Benner said. “There’s a group for animals that get tangled in fishing line called Clear your Gear. They’ve become big followers for us. We’re all helpful for each other and we’re just getting the word out. The big thing right now is bird strikes, birds hitting windows. You would never know if you weren’t on social media.”

A global audience for Alaska’s wildlife

From connecting with other resources for bird strikes, to sharing cute seal pup videos across national borders, to voting for the chonkiest of bears, social media has allowed people that may never make it to Alaska to see the majesty of its wildlife.

“I think it’s great. I think it’s a great way to engage people,” Fitz said. “We have had a lot of fun the last couple years with our bracket reveal. We’re making sure we’re improving upon our existing content.”

Fitz also had some advice for those who participate in Fat Bear Week brackets, like some reporters who bet on 32 Chunk.

“Otis won this year. He’s won four times. It’s often not a good bet to bet against Otis,” Fitz said. “I did this year, I picked 747 this year. It’s fun to debate that. I think overall people thought he made the most impressive weight gains.”

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