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Off the clock, in-house attorney suits up to save environment

Jeff Neterval practices riding a bike for the first time in his polar bear suit in July 2014 near his home in Madison. Neterval, who runs a non-profit focused on raising awareness about protecting biodiversity and helping organizations raise money for conservation efforts, was preparing for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County’s Bike For Boys & Girls Club event. Photo courtesy of Jeff Neterval

Jeff Neterval practices riding a bike for the first time in his polar bear suit in July 2014 near his home in Madison. Neterval, who runs a non-profit focused on raising awareness about protecting biodiversity and helping organizations raise money for conservation efforts, was preparing for the Boys and Girls Club of Dane County’s Bike For Boys & Girls Club event. Photo courtesy of Jeff Neterval

By day, Jeff Neterval is senior corporate counsel at Middleton-based American Girl.

On nights and weekends, he devotes his time to running the Race Against Extinction.

The Madison attorney does that both figuratively and literally — and sometimes in a polar bear suit.

One year found Neterval running the entire Chicago Marathon in full bear gear despite being on crutches the week before. It got up to 89 degrees in the suit. Neterval also finished last, clocking in at 7-1/2 hours.

“It was insane,” he said. “I’m not sure if I could ever do that again.”

Running races in a polar bear suit is part of Neterval’s work with Race Against Extinction, a non-profit group he founded in 2007 that is dedicated to calling attention to the need to protect biodiversity and raise money for conservation.

Neterval says his most impressive achievement as the polar bear, which officially has no name, came last March, when he raised $4,600 for the World Wildlife Fund while running in the Rock N’ Roll Half Marathon in Washington, D.C. Neterval set the record for raising the most money for the WWF using Panda Nation, a platform for the fund’s supporters.

The idea of running races in the polar bear suit came after Neterval started Race Against Extinction, while he was working at the group’s table in 2008 at the Earth Day Festival in Boston, which he had done previously.

That was the year the group somewhat haphazardly decided to rent a costume that would let someone dress up like some member of an endangered species. They ended up with the polar bear suit. Before that, few people had ever stopped by the festival’s non-profit area.

“It was a game-changer,” Neterval said. “Everyone came. So that was when I said, ‘Jeez, I need one of these.’ So I bought one — a used one. And the rest is history.”

Neterval’s work with Race Against Extinction is his way of doing something for the environment. While he had always had an affinity for nature, Neterval said reading the Future of Life by Harvard University Professor E.O. Wilson was a defining moment for him.

“I love wildlife,” he said. “I love nature and I want to preserve it as much as possible for future generations.”

But the work is not all polar bear suits and marathons. Neterval also runs the Race Against Extinction’s day-to-day operations. That’s where his corporate-counsel experience comes in handy. He does all the legal work for the non-profit group, on top of the other work required to keep a nonprofit going, from obtaining the proper permits for races to registering the group in the necessary states.

“This is my passion,” Neterval said. “Perhaps if I was 17 years old now, I would have gone into the field of conservation but I’m past going back to get a Ph.D or something like that.”

The group, which has raised more than $50,000 since its inception, organizes primarily 5Ks in Boston, Madison and Chicago. Race Against Extinction also promotes other organizations, including the World Wild Life Fund and The Nature Conservancy.

“We’re like Switzerland,” Neterval said. “We don’t care as long as you’re doing something positive. … Our goal is to empower ordinary people to do extraordinary things to preserve nature. You don’t have to be a scientist or biologist to do something.”

About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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