(Louisville, KY) - The Louisville Zoo will soon be home to the orphaned polar bear cub that received national attention when she was found on Alaska’s North Slope in April by employees of ConocoPhillips. The five-month old Qannik (pronounced Ken’ick) is scheduled to arrive in late June and will subsequently be off public exhibit for a period of time for quarantine and to adjust to her new surroundings.
Qannik means “snowflake” in the Iñupiat language and it is also the name of the oil field where she was found. The cub’s journey from the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage to Louisville has been dubbed “Operation Snowflake” and is the product of a two month collaboration between the Alaska Zoo and Louisville Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Polar Bears International (PBI) and UPS.
“In a collaborative effort with USFWS, it was determined the best placement for this little cub would be Louisville where both her physical and psychological needs could be met,” commented Dr. Randi Meyerson, the Coordinator of the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan (SSP), one of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ cooperative breeding management programs and a critical component in assisting threatened and endangered species. “The Louisville Zoo’s new Glacier Run bear habitat is an excellent facility with a lot of space, flexibility, animal training and enrichment options,” continued Meyerson. “Several of the Zoo’s staff have over 10 years of experience of working with polar bears which was also a key factor in making the decision as was the strong conservation messaging centered around Glacier Run.” A third and equally important factor was the tentatively-scheduled placement of a young captive-born polar bear in Louisville in the Fall of 2011.
"We're glad that the cub will soon be settled in a permanent home," said Rosa Meehan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Alaska Region, which assisted with the zoo selection process. "I'm confident that the Louisville Zoo is the right choice, and that the cub will be a valuable "spokesbear," teaching the public about polar bears and their remote, harsh, and beautiful habitat, and increasing the scientific community's understanding of this threatened species."
“We are thrilled and honored to have been chosen to be Qannik’s new caregivers. Recovery of abandoned cubs such as Qannik is one of the reasons we built Glacier Run, to provide much needed, state-of-the-art bear space to help manage the population of these iconic animals and hopefully aid in their survival,” said Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak. “We will give her the utmost care. She will be an important animal ambassador, representing her species and the importance of arctic conservation.” Qannik brings the total captive population of polar bears in North America to only 79.
Qannik was born last January in a snow-den her mother dug to protect her from the fury of the Arctic Alaskan winter. She was first spotted on Alaska’s North Slope in February of this year with her mother and sibling. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey placed a radio monitoring collar on the mother and were tracking her and the two cubs before the collar slipped off. In late April, Qannik was spotted again, this time alone. An unsuccessful aerial search was conducted to locate the mother. It is unknown why Qannik was separated from her mother and sibling but eventually the cub was again sighted near the ConocoPhillips site where she was rescued. The USFWS called in the Alaska Zoo to care for the distressed cub. The Alaska Zoo has a 35-year history of successfully working with and caring for polar bears. Patrick Lampi, executive director of the Alaska Zoo says, “Qannik arrived at the Alaska Zoo weighing only 15 pounds. She has progressed well under the Zoo’s care and now weighs 60 pounds and responds well to her caretakers.”
PBI’s Dr. Steven C. Amstrup, commented “Had Qannik not been rescued, she would have died. Polar bear cubs stay with their mother for over 2 years as they learn the ways of their Arctic sea ice home. Cubs of this age cannot survive on their own.” Dr. Amstrup led polar bear research in Alaska for 30 years before joining PBI as Chief Scientist. PBI is the leading non-governmental authority promoting polar bear conservation through research, education and stewardship.
In recent years, increased numbers of cubs have been dying during their early months of life. Scientists have shown that these higher death rates are linked to reductions in sea ice caused by global warming. More open water and fragmented sea ice makes it increasingly difficult for tiny cubs to keep up with mother bears that urgently need to catch seals in order to regain weight lost during a long winter fast. “It is lucky for Qannik that she was discovered and brought to Louisville where she can flourish and also help us learn about polar bears and the threats to their future existence,” Amstrup concluded.
PBI President and CEO Robert Buchanan was instrumental in bringing together all the groups involved in polar bear conservation for recovery operations such as this and is delighted that Qannik is being placed in Louisville. “The primary concern of everyone involved with this little bear has been doing what’s best for her,” said Buchanan. “The Louisville Zoo has an extraordinary exhibit and commitment to polar bears and it will be a wonderful home for Qannik.”
Meticulous planning and countless hours have been logged preparing for Qannik’s trip from the Alaska Zoo to Louisville since Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer first asked UPS for help in transporting the cub. “This is an exciting opportunity for Louisville and our Zoo,” said Fischer. “We are fortunate to have outstanding corporate citizens like UPS that are willing to step up and offer their resources and expertise to help accomplish something that will benefit our community.”
Qannik will be traveling with a special team including the directors of both zoos, Shannon Jensen, curator of the Alaska Zoo, as well as the Louisville Zoo Assistant Mammal Curator and Supervisor of Animal Training Jane Anne Franklin and Louisville Zoo Veterinarian Dr. Zoli Gyimesi. She will be flying on a UPS Boeing 747-400. A press conference is being planned that will introduce the experts that cared for Qannik throughout her journey, the Louisville Zoo team that will continue her care, the transportation logistics team from UPS, Buchanan and Meyerson. To ensure a smooth transition Walczak, Franklin and Dr. Gyimesi will be going to Anchorage early to meet with the Alaska team and to get acquainted with Qannik.
The bear habitat of Glacier Run, the Louisville Zoo’s newest exhibit, opened in April 2011 and shows the Zoo’s commitment to the species in both the facility design and programming. The Louisville Zoo worked closely with PBI in the process of designing and building Glacier Run and through this partnership the Zoo has been designated as an Arctic Ambassador Center. Designed as an imaginary town on the edge of the arctic wilderness, Glacier Run is modeled after Churchill, Canada, the polar bear capital of the world and a place where humans are learning to co-exist with wildlife. The exhibit offers spectacular views, captivating stories of the arctic and unique opportunities for close-up encounters with the magnificent and iconic polar bear, as well as grizzly bears, seals and sea lions. Guests can interact with zoo keepers, learn about current challenges to arctic environments and animals, and discover how incremental changes in our everyday activities and behaviors can make a difference for our planet and these magnificent species.
Glacier Run is now home to Arki, a 26 year-old polar bear who came to Louisville from the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and a family of three grizzly bears — six year-old Inga and her twin one year-old cubs, Otis and Rita. The grizzlies were brought here from Polson Montana after being removed from the remnant wild because they were raiding chicken coops and were considered nuisance bears, thus at risk of being euthanized. Zoo keepers have worked with these wild-born bears with great success since they came to Louisville in August 2011.