It may have been the most anticipated package ever delivered to the Buffalo Zoo: an orphaned polar bear cub that arrived Wednesday from Alaska and will spend the summer with another cub born six months ago.
Kali arrived aboard a UPS flight at Buffalo Niagara International Airport shortly before 5:30 a.m., ending a 14-hour trip that was set in motion in March when a hunter in Alaska realized an adult female bear he'd killed was nursing.
"He followed the tracks back to the den, crawled down inside, found a cub, pulled it out, put it in his coveralls, rode it back into Point Lay and then got hold of U.S. Fish and Wildlife," said Patrick Lampi, executive director of the Alaska Zoo, which has cared for the bear since.
Subsistence hunting is allowed in the area, but hunters aren't allowed to shoot females with cubs, Lampi said after accompanying the cub to Buffalo.
Called Kali after the Inupiat name for Point Lay, the male cub now weighs 65 pounds and is estimated to be just less than 5 months old. It would have been unable to care for itself in the wild, experts said. Young polar bears stay with their mothers for about 2 years.
In Buffalo, it will slowly be introduced to Luna, a female polar bear born Nov. 27 that has become a visitor favorite and the face of an $18 million fundraising campaign for a planned Arctic exhibit and new zoo entrance. Experts said both cubs will benefit from interacting with each other rather than only human caretakers.
A few hours after Kali's arrival, the cubs were in adjacent dens, able to smell and hear each other but prevented by a solid barrier from visual and physical contact. The next step will be to replace the barrier with mesh.
"Then they can have some limited physical contact, visual contact," zoo president Donna Fernandes said. "If that goes well and they're spending lots of time near each other by the mesh barrier and showing interest, then we can gradually open it up a little bit, give them room for a paw to go through.
"If they're not swiping at each other and it looks good, we'll open the door a little bit more, a little bit more, until they get a full physical introduction," Fernandes said at a press conference as Luna, behind a glass partition, dove over and over into a pond, pounced on a toy ark and ball, and wrestled with shrubbery.
"When you have adult animals, it can be more problematic," Fernandes said, "but I don't think we'll have a problem with these young guys. I think they'll be very excited to have a playmate."
Kali, expected to stay in Buffalo six months, made the 4,400-mile trip in a stainless steel crate, tended to by handlers given Federal Aviation Administration clearance to be on the cargo deck, UPS Capt. Jon Burrows said.
The logistics were hammered out over about 225 emails, Lampi said.
"Knowing he's coming here to be with another cub, that's just perfect," he said. "You just can't substitute being with a same species 24/7 so it'll be great for both of them."
The Buffalo Zoo hopes Kali will be a permanent resident, but the decision will be up to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.