Jeff Neterval on giving people a way to make a difference

Polar bear standing on the edge of ice and looking up

WWF Partner in Conservation Jeff Neterval grew up exploring the rivers, woods, and fields near his home outside of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Years later, he founded The Race Against Extinction, a nonprofit that organizes races and other outdoor events to benefit conservation organizations like WWF. Today, Jeff and his organization work to build awareness and raise funds for wildlife—and to help people see that they can do something to protect our planet.

You have become a tireless advocate for nature. What caused your environmental awakening?

I was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 1994, when we discovered a tumor about the size of my fist blocking my windpipe. Surviving cancer gave me focus and drove me to want to do something to make a difference. A few years later, I read E.O. Wilson’s The Future of Life, and it really opened my eyes to just how many plants and animals are disappearing—before we can even discover if they could help us find the medical cures we need. That, and my daughter’s constant refrain to “save the animals!,” reinforced my belief that preserving our planet’s biodiversity is the mother of all issues.

You created The Race Against Extinction in 2008. What do you hope to achieve through these events?

I created The Race Against Extinction so people could feel empowered to make a difference. This Earth Day will be our eighth annual race. We are now also organizing national virtual events to honor Earth Day, World Environment Day, and World Oceans Day. These events will allow people to participate from wherever they are, in whatever way they want to be active: walk, run, hike, bike, paddle, you name it. To help with fundraising, we use WWF’s Panda Nation, which is an awesome peer-to-peer online tool that allows participants—myself included—to raise money directly for WWF through their friends, family, coworkers, and anyone else who has a passion for all things wild.

You’ve been known to run races in a polar bear costume. What’s that about?

I wish I could say that the aerodynamic design of the costume provides me with an edge to win races, but in truth, it’s because people love it and are drawn to it. There are so many times people have come up to me—say a mom and her kids—and they want to do more to help conserve nature. We need to engage people from all walks of life, empower them to act, and instill in them the optimism that they can make a difference and that the time to act is now!

Learn more about getting active for nature.

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