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The new Knut? Orphan polar bear cub heads to zoo via UPS

Qannik, a 5-month-old polar bear cub found orphaned in Alaska in April, is being shipped via UPS to the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky. Her story has similarities to that of Knut, a cub raised in a Berlin zoo who became an international celebrity.
/ Source: TODAY contributor

It might be the beginning of summer, but Operation Snowflake is in full effect.

Qannik, a 5-month-old polar bear cub found as an orphan on Alaska’s North Slope in April, is being shipped on a UPS Boeing 747-400 from her temporary digs at the Alaska Zoo to the Glacier Run development in the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky.

The cub’s name, pronounced “Ken’ick,” means “snowflake” in the Inupiat language — it’s also the name of the gravel pad on the North Slope where Qannik was first seen. And Operation Snowflake has been in the works for two months, with the Alaska Zoo, Louisville Zoo, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Association of Zoos and Aquariums, Polar Bears International and UPS all involved.

But Qannik’s odyssey began even before ConocoPhillips employees found her all alone this spring. Researchers first saw the cub emerge from a snow den, along with her mother and a sibling, in February. When she was spotted again in late April, she was on her own. An aerial search for the mother and sibling turned up no clues, so the decision was made to rescue the young bear.

Qannik’s story is similar in some ways to that of Knut, a polar bear raised by zookeepers in Berlin, Germany, after he was rejected by his mother at birth. Knut became the zoo’s star attraction and an international celebrity before he died unexpectedly in March, drowning in his enclosure’s pool. Pathologists found that the bear had suffered a seizure due to encephalitis.

Qannik weighed only 15 pounds when she was found, according to Patrick Lampi, executive director of the Alaska Zoo. Today, she's plumped up to 60 pounds.

As luck would have it, Kentucky’s Louisville Zoo had opened its only a day before Qannik was discovered, and experts determined Louisville to be the best long-term option for her. Featuring a chilled pool, air-conditioned sleeping areas, grass, mulch and pine needle digging pits, the nearly 4-acre facility is designed to house a small population of polar bears, with room for six adults and up to six cubs, reports Alaska Dispatch.

John Gomes

Qannik will join 26-year-old Arki, a female polar bear, and Inga, a 6-year-old mama grizzly and her twin yearling cubs, Otis and Rita, in the facility.

Louisville Zoo director John Walczak has flown to Alaska with his team to see the cub in person for the first time. On June 27, the fluffy white cub and her crew, which will include the Alaska Zoo’s director, who’s watched over Qannik since she arrived there, will board the plane to Louisville, according to Alaska Dispatch.

Don’t base your summer travel plans on catching a glimpse of the zoo’s newest northern transplant just yet, though — she’ll remain off exhibit for a while, until she’s adjusted to her new home, reports