Little Polar Bear: Lessons

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Qannik demonstrates the paw to hand behavior. What a smart cub! Photo by Andrew Fore.

JoAnne was at the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky to help staff with their newest arrival, an orphaned polar bear cub named Qannik. Read her previous post, Little Polar Bear Orphan.

For polar bear cubs, life is all about learning to survive in the Arctic from the moment they are born until Momma kicks them out. Momma bear has all the right stuff for teaching: intelligence, nourishment, and communication. For Qannik, communication with 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.

The sloping false bottom made for Qannik's pool.

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 (180 kilograms), so it’s important we teach her just as we would when she is an adult polar bear. This beginning relationship is so important: we look for nice, relaxed eye-to-eye moments. Next are a few simple behaviors like shifting rooms, sitting, or presenting a paw when asked to do so.

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 offers her back for the young cubs to hold on to until they learn to swim well. With the help of Steve Goodwin, Louisville Zoo’s 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 sloped access into the deep end, strength enough to hold a pouncing 60-pound (27 kilograms) bear, and be easy to take apart once Qannik could swim and get out of the pool on her own.

Qannik keeps everyone in suspense as she contemplates a swim.

The day after Qannik arrived, we watched 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 “Gotcha!” 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, as it had done its job! The slope helped her with gradual ease into the pool, it was strong enough to hold her, and was 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. Louisville Zoo keepers report she now throws all her toys into the pool and is officially a swimming maniac.

Qannik helps dismantle the pool's false bottom, as it's no longer needed.

When the time came to say goodbye to little Qannik, it was not without a lump in my throat. In just 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 Qanniks to rescue and some that we won’t find.

My time with Qannik was also about the wonderful folks who 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.

Be sure to share some time with the San Diego Zoo’s fabulous trio on Wednesday, July 13.  We hear we are in for a summertime snow fall!

JoAnne Simerson is a senior keeper at the San Diego Zoo.