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Alaska's polar bear cub Kentucky-bound

Jill Burke

Some might call it fate. Just one day after the zoo in Louisville, Kentucky opened a brand new polar bear exhibit with room for new bears, oil field workers thousands of miles away in Alaska discovered a lonesome cub that by the end of that same week would be deemed abandoned and in need of a new home. Now, after two months of foster care at the Alaska Zoo, which didn’t have space to keep the bear long-term, the stars have aligned for the feisty white fur ball to permanently become a southerner. On Wednesday, the Louisville Zoo announced that the cub – via a mission it calls "operation snowflake" -- is coming its way and will keep her Alaska-given name.

Oilfield workers nicknamed the cub Qannik, an Inupiat word for snowflake and the name of the gravel pad on the North Slope where she was found alone, with no sign of her mother and twin. Just two weeks earlier the family had been spotted together near their den.

"It's so significant where she is from. It's a great name and it's always going to help tell her story and why she came to the Louisville Zoo so we felt it was significant to keep her name," John Walczak, the zoo's director, said in an interview Wednesday. "We are thrilled beyond words that Qannik is coming here. It’s a bittersweet story of course."

Bittersweet, because the young bear will have lost her family and her life as a creature of the wild, and because of the symbol she will stand for: a changing climate and a melting arctic.

"We built the exhibit in preparation for what might happen to polar bears and here we are," Walczak said of the exhibit, which has been more than a decade in the making. "We are thrilled that we are here to provide that home for her and tell her story and tell the story for polar bear conservation."

"We will give her the utmost care. She will be an important animal ambassador, representing her species and the importance of arctic conservation," Walczak said in a prepared statement announcing the cub’s much anticipated arrival.

Glacier Run is described as a state-of-the-art facility. Designed in close consultation with Polar Bears International, a non-profit organization dedicated entirely to the survival of polar bears, Louisville’s new exhibit has been designated as an Arctic Ambassador Center. The site features a chilled pool, air conditioned sleeping areas, a variety of digging pits -- the bears can choose between grass, mulch or pine needles -- and spans nearly 4 acres. Created to sustain a small population of polar bears, it has space for 6 adult polar bears (one male and several females) and as many as six cubs.

Qannik will be the second polar bear to live at the zoo, and is the 79th polar bear to come into captivity in North America. In Kentucky, she'll join 26-year-old Arki, a female polar bear, and a six year-old  mother grizzly and her yearling cubs which were removed from the wild in Montana after they repeatedly raided chicken coops and were at risk of being killed.

Walczak and his team will fly to Alaska Thursday to get their first-ever look at the cub in person. So far, they've only been able to watch her on video. One week later, on June 27, Qannik will be packaged up and loaded onto a 747 for her farewell flight. Walczak and the man who’s watched over Qannik thus far -- Alaska Zoo director Pat Lampi -- will be among the people accompanying her to Kentucky to help her adjust to her new home.

With the arrival of Qannik, the Kentucky zoo's mission and vision for Glacier Run is coming full circle. The exhibit was first conceived in 1998, and knowing that the arctic was changing the zoo wanted to make sure it carved out space for bears that would predictably, with the loss of sea ice affecting how easily the bears can get around and find the food they need, become imperiled.

"We anticipated that these bears are going to need help," Walczak said, explaining that while Qannik will no longer be wild, her status as an icon of the north won’t change. "The world needs to know what’s on the horizon for [polar bears] and what it needs to do to maintain polar bears into eternity."

Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com