ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- Wanted: A zoo for an orphaned polar bear cub that was rescued at an Alaska oil field.
Officials from the Alaska Zoo in Anchorage were helping to escort the 17-pound cub from the North Slope, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service said Friday. The female cub, estimated to be at least 4 months old, was herded into a net and kept in a large dog kennel, said Rosa Meehan, the Fish and Wildlife Service marine mammals manager in Alaska.
"It was initially shaking from the stress, but it settled down and has been resting quietly," she said.
The cub will stay at the zoo until a home is found, said zoo office manager Heather Schaad. The zoo already has two polar bears and four other bears and doesn't have the facilities to keep the cub permanently, Schaad said.
The cub was captured at the Alpine oil field and fed a commercial puppy milk replacement fortified with whipping cream to meet her nutritional needs, Fish and Wildlife officials said.
She was first spotted after emerging from a den with her mother and a sibling seven weeks ago, Meehan said. Researchers with the U.S. Geological Survey had captured the sow and her cubs and put a radio collar on the mother.
"Unfortunately, the collar slipped off a few days later," Meehan said.
The cub was spotted again Tuesday, but she was alone, orphaned or separated from her mother. Alpine operators contacted the Fish and Wildlife Service, which asked them to conduct an aerial search for the mother, Meehan said. Operators are required to notify the agency whenever they see the far-north animal.
After the search wrapped up, the cub was gone. Then she showed up again Thursday, and Fish and Wildlife coordinated plans with the zoo to collect the bear.
Agency officials said the zoo already has an arrangement in place with North Slope operators to respond to any oil spills affecting polar bears. So rescue plans came together very quickly, Meehan said.
It's unknown how long the underweight cub was by herself without food, or what actually happened to her mother and sibling. One thing that's unlikely is that a subsistence hunter from the nearest community – the Inupiat Eskimo village of Nuiqsut – shot the mother. Only Alaska Natives are allowed to hunt polar bears, and they are required to report their subsistence harvest to the Fish and Wildlife Service. Agency biologists contacted the village and learned that no locals have taken a polar bear recently.
There are several possible scenarios that could have led to abandonment. The mother might have been in poor condition and unable to care for the cubs. Or the cub might have gotten separated from her mother in a storm, or if the mother was trying to protect the cub from an adult male bear. The mother and the other cub could be dead or alive.
"We don't know what happened here," Meehan said.
The Alpine field is operated by ConocoPhillips.
"We were just pleased to be able to rescue this polar bear cub and put it in the hands of U.S. Fish and Wildlife," company spokeswoman Natalie Lowman said. "We really appreciate our alpine employees because they have a real commitment protecting the wildlife that we coexist with on the North Slope."