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The NC Zoo reported Thursday that Payton, its beloved, 1,000-pound male polar bear, died on Wednesday, just short of his 20th birthday.
Payton was traveling to the zoo in Louisville, Ky., for a breeding partnership and became non-responsive only two hours from Asheville, zoo officials said. A necropsy showed signs of cardiac disease, a tumor on the adrenal gland and moderate osteoarthritis.
Named for NFL running back Walter Payton, the male bear had arrived in North Carolina only two years ago, transferred from the zoo in Memphis to breed with Anana, the NC Zoo’s female. They met just around Valentine’s Day.
‘The best boy’
“He was the best boy bear,” said keeper Melissa Vindigni in a news release. “His trust was worth the effort to earn, and it was a privilege and honor to have earned that. He loved training and interacting with his keepers and vet techs, and his trust in us really shined with his willingness to work with us on his own health care. I learned so much from him and I was blessed to work with him. I will never forget the things he taught me.”
Polar bears are listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act, the first species to appear there due mostly to climate change.
The Association of Zoos and Aquariums matches bears based on a scientific approach, but despite the favorable pairing cubs are never certain during the short late-winter breeding season.
Payton replaced male polar bear Nikita, who came in 2016 but did not produce a cub with Anana after five seasons, moving on to a zoo in Utah.
Polar bears generally live 15 to 18 years in the wild, though they can reach nearly twice that age under human care.
A full investigation into Payton’s death will be conducted soon.
Polar bears at the NC Zoo
Polar bears first came to the zoo with the 1994 opening of the park’s North America section. Keepers quickly learned that polar bears are curious, like to stay busy and require a lot of space.
At one time, the zoo had hoped to have as many as eight polar bears and spent millions to upgrade its exhibit in order to qualify for the bears’ placement there.
But a decade ago, wildlife biologists reported a worldwide shortage of polar bears, which they blamed in part on a loss of habitat and hunting grounds due to polar ice melt.
Because of the shortage, zoos nearly stopped taking of any polar bears from the wild except for orphaned cubs or bears that were severely distressed and couldn’t survive on their own.
That means zoos hoping to exhibit polar bears usually must get them from other accredited facilities, either through managed breeding programs that allow the animals to be loaned or relocated, or when a zoo decides to close its polar bear exhibit.
That has happened in the past, as the habitats are costly to build and maintain.
In January 2022, the International Union for Conservation of Nature estimated that 26,000 polar bears remained across their range, which includes the U.S. (Alaska), Canada, Russia, Greenland, and Norway.
According to the Polar Bear Species Survival Plan, in 2022 there were 56 polar bears in 25 Association of Zoos and Aquariums-accredited facilities.
The N.C. Zoo’s polar bear exhibit is one of its most popular attractions and the bears are considered among its “charismatic” animals. The exhibit allows visitors to see the bears from above, where they go into and out of hiding places, and from below the water line of their chilled pool. There, visitors often place their hands on the glass in hopes the bears will do the same on the other side.
Polar bears are the most ferocious carnivores in North America, but as a former zoo spokesman once said, “They’re seen as these big white Teddy bears.”