Qannik Early Care Cub Keeper Notes 2011

November 4, 2011

“This bear’s brain is like a sponge!” We’ve heard this countless times from the Glacier Run staff about polar bear cub, Qannik, and in particular from Supervisor of Animal Training Jane Anne Franklin or her mentor former Louisville Zoo general curator Steve Taylor (who is now helping out with observing and managing Qannik.) It is usually followed up by an anecdotal account of the cub’s amazing  intelligence. Each keeper has examples of the myriad of ways that Qannik uses her problem solving skills. Her object manipulation is one example. She uses toys in ways other than play, for example using a toy as a stair step to jump in the back of the truck (even though we all know she can get in that truck without a stool).  Franklin and Taylor have to mentally stay ten steps ahead of the little bear to keep things fresh and keep her brain engaged. This might mean that when Taylor is at home mowing his lawn he is thinking of ways to engage Qannik or when Franklin is at home trying to rest she may pop out of bed in the wee hours of the morning with the next idea for an enrichment activity to present to the cub.  If rewriting the plan for bear management in zoos has Franklin and Taylor losing a few winks they are up to the task.

Taylor, who has a lifetime of animal experience including 35 years in zoos (he started working in a veterinarian”s office when he was in high school), says this moment in time and working with this bear is an honor, “I think my whole career has led me to this point. Everything that I have experienced and honed in my 35 years of animal work has equipped me and Jane Anne to be able to work with Qannik in a way that no one else has done before.”   Franklin and Taylor have worked together for 20 years starting when Franklin joined the Louisville Zoo staff as a keeper in the Giraffe area and Taylor was the General Curator.  Neither of them takes lightly the job of caring for this wild born cub. They see the significance of their task and realize that what they are learning and doing with this little cub could shift the paradigm for bear management in zoos.  The last work with a young wild born cub was ten years ago at the San Diego Zoo with trainer JoAnne Simerson (you can see her notes below from her visit to our Zoo to help with the first few days of Qannik’s stay in Louisville). Franklin and Taylor have taken what Simerson’s team shared of their experience, added ten years more of acquired information to it and have created  a behavioral management program, which includes intense observation, that they hope will break new ground.  “Every day one of us (the team also includes Kevin Grizzle and Tracey Parke) is with her during her exhibit times and up until bedtime. We watch her play, we watch her problem solve, we watch how she interacts with us and with the items we give her.”  Franklin adds.  Nearly everything they observe with notebook in hand is a piece of intel they take into account to tweak, edit or add to in order to stimulate and keep Qannik’s brain active.

July, 2011

JoAnne Simerson, San Diego Zoo

“Little Polar Bear Orphan: Learning and Lessons”

For polar bear cubs from the moment they are born until momma kicks them out life is all about learning to survive in the Arctic. Momma bear has all the right stuff for teaching –intelligence, nourishment, and communication. For Qannik communication between her and her keepers would be the first lesson. Luckily Qannik is very intelligent, and dare I say so are keepers! Training using positive reinforcement is how we communicate with our bears. We taught Qannik to slurp her formula out of a large syringe that is easy to use from outside the mesh. Qannik is a large girl now and will soon be reaching over 400 pounds so it’s important we teach her just as we would when she is an adult polar bear. So important is this beginning relationship that is formed – we look for nice relaxed eye to eye moments. Next is a few simple behaviors like shifting rooms, sitting, or paw present.

While the Louisville Zoo keepers were flying to Alaska to pick up Qannik one of my tasks was to build a false bottom in her new pool to help her learn how to swim. In the Arctic momma bear will offer her back for the young cubs to hold on to until they learn to swim well. With the help of Steve Goodwin, Louisville Zoos all-round-can-do-it-all guy,(he makes incredible pottery too!) we built, netted, tied, and lashed a false bottom into the pool. The design allowed for 1. sloped access into the deep-end, 2. strength enough to hold a pouncing 60 pound bear, and 3. to easily take apart once Qannik could swim and get out of the pool on her own.

The day after Qannik arrived we all gathered to watch her make her first plunge into the pool. Miss Qannik knows how to hold her audience! She spent the majority of the day on the first steps holding on by her toes, stretching ever so far that we all knew she had to go in! She would turn and look at us as if to say “Got cha!” Finally she rewarded our patience by a not so graceful dive into the pool after a white bucket toy. After the first excitement we held our breaths, would she be able to get out of the pool? Well of course –she’s a polar bear! At that moment we decided we could take the false bottom out of the pool, it had done its job! The slope helped her with gradual ease into the pool, it was strong enough to hold her and finally easy to take apart. Did you know little polar bears are also helpful? Qannik hopped right back into the pool and began to dismantle the false bottom to the floor. Qannik’s Louisville Zoo keepers report she throws all her toys into the pool and is officially a swimming maniac.

When the time came to say good bye to little Qannik it was not without a lump in my throat. In only a week she had grabbed my heart for all she has been through in her short life. What a spirit, so tenacious, so tough, so intelligent, so irresistible, a connection to the wild. All polar bears are like Qannik. It’s hard to think that there will be more Qannik’s to rescue and some that we won’t find. My time with Qannik was also about the wonderful folks that all came together to rescue and care for this little bear and the great team that will be there when the next bear needs help. We can make the changes as individuals joining together into communities to collaborate on conservation to save our arctic ice and the beautiful spirited creatures that live there.

June 30, 2011

JoAnne Simerson, San Diego Zoo
“Polar Bear Qannik –A Little Polar Bear’s Travels”

Everyone was worried when word first came about an orphaned polar bear cub in Alaska last April. Luckily for the cub many folks had been preparing for this exact day for the past few years. Understanding that with the warming of the Arctic the resulting sea ice loss would put pressures on polar bear survival ideas, plans, and communication avenues were established between conservation groups like Polar Bears International, government agencies like USFWS, and zoo professionals from North America to safely and expertly respond to rescue a polar bear orphan.

The cub was named “Qannik” (ken-ik) an Inpuiaq word for snowflake. She was underweight at 15 pounds when rescued but now after a few months of adjustment and care at the Alaska Zoo the 60 pound cub was flown on a 747 jet, compliments of UPS, to her new home at the Louisville Zoo’s new Glacier Run! It’s hard to believe 10 years ago we were going through the same experience when Kalluk and Tatqiq were rescued on the ice of Alaska at 3 months old. Along with the excitement comes some worries of how to make sure we give the best care ever! Back then we had many folks to call on for advice. It is now our turn to share what we learned back then. We compiled everything from formula amounts, recipes, how many feedings per day, weights at what age (I forgot that Kalluk gained 5 lbs. in one day!), training records, veterinary records, everything we could put together and sent it all to Louisville.

I arrived in Louisville the day before Qannik to help with last minute preparations. Part of the Louisville Zoo staff had headed to Alaska to begin getting to know Qannik and becoming familiar to her and along with her care takers from Alaska escort her on the plane to Louisville. During the flight she slept often and was treated with frozen popsicles made of her formula – definitely a big hit! How often when we fly we want our luggage to be the first off- if you’re a polar bear cub it’s no problem. Qannik was first one off the plane. We then placed her in our van and drove back to the zoo. Now tell me how many of you have been in a van with a polar bear cub! By the way she traveled easily no complaints just lots of sniffing.

Next she was carried into the bedroom area and the crate door opened. She immediately came out and explored, well explored after she had a bowl of formula and small chunks of Alaskan salmon! After a bit of a romp and roll through the fresh hay she crawled into the den and fell asleep.