Polar bear Qannik

Operation Snowflake

Qannik the Polar Bear Cub

The Louisville Zoo is now home to the polar bear cub that received national attention when she was found abandoned on Alaska’s North Slope in April 2011 by employees of Connoco Phillips.

Qannik (pronounced KUN’nik) means “snowflake” in the Iñupiaq language and it is also the name of the oil field where she was found.

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Qannik’s Story

Qannik was born in January 2011 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 wandered near shore where she was rescued.  The cub took up temporary residence at the Alaska Zoo where the Director, Pat Lampi and his staff took wonderful care of her until a permanent home could be found.

Polar Bears International is the leading authority on polar bear research and conservation.  PBI’s Chief Scientist & Vice President, Conservation Science Dr. Steven C. Amstrup had this to say about the cub, “Had she 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 (now 6 months), cannot survive on their own.” “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.

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.

Why Louisville?

“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 programs and a critical component in assisting 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 10 years plus experience of working with polar bears which was also a key factor in the decision to send the cub to Louisville, 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.

Rosa Meehan of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Alaska Region, which assisted with the zoo selection process said, “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.”

Operation Snowflake

Phase I: The Planning

The cub’s journey from Anchorage, Alaska to Louisville was dubbed “Operation Snowflake” and was the product of a two month collaboration between the Alaska and Louisville Zoos, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), Polar Bears International (PBI) and UPS.

Meticulous planning and countless hours were logged preparing for Qannik’s trip from Anchorage to Louisville ever since Louisville Mayor Greg Fischer first asked logistics experts at UPS to help with her transport.  From the moment they said “yes” UPS teams in Louisville, Anchorage, Alaska and Hong Kong swung into action to make Operation Snowflake a reality.  It was a lot more than just putting a bear on an airplane and flying to Louisville!  The safety and comfort of the bear was a top priority.

First there were numerous permits and approvals that both UPS and the Zoo had to acquire.  Then there were the actual physical logistics of the move to be planned and implemented. For example, there are two planes in the UPS global fleet that are suited to fly this mission, so someone had to be sure those planes would be flying routes through Anchorage around the time Qannik would likely be making her trip.  Other experts devised the most efficient and quiet way to load the travel crate into the plane so they would disturb the cub as little as possible. Crews then practiced this technique on the ground in Alaska.  And since the flight was going to  originate in Hong Kong, a UPS team member there had to calculate what other cargo was going to be loaded into the plane and still have the necessary space for the bear and her human entourage.

Former Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak, Former Assistant Mammal Curator and Supervisor of Animal Training Jane Anne Franklin and Dr. Zoli Gyimesi went to Anchorage early to meet with the Alaska team and to get acquainted with Qannik.  The cub traveled home on a climate controlled Boeing 747-400 with the whole team which also included Mr. Lampi and one of her keepers from Alaska Zoo.

Phase II: The Flight Home

Qannik arrived in Louisville Tuesday, June 28, 2011 at 12:40 a.m. – slightly ahead of schedule.

UPS Captain Edward Horne piloted the direct flight from Alaska along with First Officer Wayne Jackson and escort Captain Steve Jennings.

Qannik’s crate was loaded onto the 747 just prior to departure in Anchorage to minimize her wait time, and she was the first off the plane in Louisville.  Jane Anne and Dr. Zoli had continuous in-flight access to cub who appeared quiet and comfortable and was “a great traveler.” Jane Anne fed Qannik special frozen formula pops that the Alaska Zoo Animal Curator Shannon Jensen had prepared.  Cabin temperature for the cub was a chilly 58 and 60 degrees.

Once she arrived in Louisville, she was transported to the Zoo in a climate-controlled vehicle accompanied by a back-up vehicle and security.

“We have a nice temperature-controlled bedroom facility where she can acclimate, and she has access to chilled pools so she can learn to swim,” said Former Louisville Zoo Director John Walczak as he described what comes next for Qannik. “We’re looking at everything and taking it one step at a time making sure she has what she needs to enrich her life.”