The hunter thought he had a rare catch, a large polar bear bagged in the northern hinterlands of Alaska.
What he didn’t realize was that the bear was a female, with a tiny little cub waiting for her back home.
With the help of that hunter, the bear cub survived, and its harrowing journey ends Wednesday when it becomes the latest polar bear cub to call the Buffalo Zoo home.
The almost unbelievable tale began in a tiny town called Point Lay, on the northern shore of Alaska, two months ago.
The bear was orphaned in March after James Tazruk, a big-game Alaskan hunter, shot and killed the mother bear on a routine expedition detailed by the Anchorage Daily News.
Tazruk didn’t realize the bear was a mother and felt terrible about shooting her.
So he followed the bear tracks back to the bear’s den, where he found the bear cub, later named Kali, sitting by himself.
Wanting to save Kali – pronounced “cully” – he scooped the cub up, fashioned a pouch out of snow pants and drove it – on his lap on a snowmobile – 40 miles to the nearest town.
Tazruk wanted to name the bear Coca-Cola – like the ads of his favorite drink – but an Alaskan newspaper said he was overruled by villagers, who chose the Inuit Eskimo name for the town in which he was discovered.
After spending the night at a police station, the bear was taken to the Alaska Zoo, where he was apparently as big a hit as Luna the bear has been in Buffalo.
Despite the popularity, the Alaska Zoo can’t keep the bear because it doesn’t have enough room. He has already tripled in weight to more than 65 pounds.
That’s where Buffalo comes in.
With plans to build a new Arctic Edge polar bear exhibit, Buffalo seemed like a perfect fit, officials said.
Also a factor was the community’s outpouring of love for Luna, a female bear whose popularity has drawn large crowds and has also helped the zoo raise more than $1 million for the polar bear exhibit.
“We’re really excited,” Fernandes said. “They’re both just so adorable.”
Zoo officials will give Kali some time to get acquainted to his surroundings and to learn the lay of the polar bear exhibit.
Then, over the course of two weeks, the bears will be slowly introduced to each other before coming out in public.
Luna, now six months old, has had the stage all to herself since she debuted around the time Kali was being saved halfway across the continent.
She often comes up to visitors and is eager to show off her skills jumping into the pool.
Luna has captured the hearts – and donations – of Buffalo’s animal lovers, but soon she will have to master a new trick:
Sharing the spotlight with Kali.
“She’s quite a diva,” Donna Fernandes, the zoo’s president, said of Luna. “She likes to put on a show.”
But like children, all young bears eventually need a friend.
“The decision to have him with another cub his own age, it’s priceless,” said Alaska Zoo director Pat Lampi. “They’re normally with their mother and another sibling for the first few years of their lives.”
Kali, estimated to be about five months old, would not have survived without its mother. The next best outcome is survival in captivity as an ambassador for its species, said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service regional director Geoff Haskett.
“Obviously, it would be better if they could stay in the wild, but that can’t happen when they’re in a situation like this, so again, our work with the zoo makes the next best thing possible,” he said.
Luna’s new buddy will fly in on a UPS cargo plane, arriving at Buffalo Niagara International Airport just after 5 a.m.
He will have a layover in Louisville because – even for bears – UPS doesn’t fly direct from Anchorage to Buffalo.
But after Kali’s journey to get here, the Queen City will seem like paradise – and not just because of the weather.
“We think she’s really going to love having a playmate,” Fernandes said. “If you’ve ever watched polar bears, they chase each other around, play tug of war with objects and have all that rolly polly fun.”
Just to be safe, top officials from the Alaska Zoo will be in Buffalo for a few days to ease the transition.
Buffalo’s veterinarian has been in Alaska since Saturday as well, where he reports things are “a lot like Buffalo.”
“We hope she’ll be nice to him” Fernandes said of Luna. “Her mother was not always the nicest bear to other bears, so we’re hoping she has her father’s personality.”
If the zoo raises the remaining $3 million for the permanent showcase, both bears could make Buffalo their permanent home.
The city is in the running with St. Louis, which also has a permanent polar bear exhibit.
Officials are saying that Kali will probably be in Buffalo for six months.
Haskett said the key to the Buffalo move was the availability of the other cub.
“It’s very, very important early in its life to know how to deal with other bears,” he said. If bears are only around humans, he said, they no longer act like a bear.
That doesn’t appear to be a problem so far.
“He’s eating almost two pounds of solid food a day in addition to his formula,” Lampi said.
Visitors will be see Kali outside in the polar bear exhibit in as early as 10 days.
The Associated Press contributed to this report. email: email@example.com