North Carolina Zoo welcomes polar bear Payton while saying goodbye to Nikita

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ASHEBORO, N.C. — The North Carolina Zoo wants you to meet their new 1,000-pound friend!

Payton, named after the Chicago Bears former running back Walter Payton, is a 17-year-old polar bear who just moved to Asheboro from the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee. He grew up at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago before moving to Memphis in 2006.

“Seeing Payton leave is bittersweet. He has been a part of our lives at Memphis Zoo for the last 15 years,” said Amanda Moses, communications specialist for the Memphis Zoo. “He is special to Memphis Zoo, and to the keepers and researchers who have worked with him. Moving Payton was not only the best option for him, but also for the repopulation of the polar bear species.”  

Even though Payton has had to say goodbye to a lot of friends, he’s getting a chance to reunite with an old one. North Carolina zookeeper Karen Warda was one of Payton’s keepers at the Memphis Zoo from 2009 to 2016, and she will be his primary keeper for his first two weeks in Asheboro.

Once veterinarians get a chance to make sure he has a clean bill of health, Payton will meet Anana, the zoo’s 22-year-old female polar bear, sometime around Valentine’s Day.

The zoo is hoping that Payton and Anana may produce a cub. Breeding season usually lasts from February to April.

  • Payton, male polar bear at North Carolina Zoo. Photo credit North Carolina Zoo.
  • Payton, male polar bear at North Carolina Zoo. Photo credit North Carolina Zoo.
  • Payton, male polar bear at North Carolina Zoo. Photo credit North Carolina Zoo.
  • Payton, male polar bear at North Carolina Zoo. Photo credit North Carolina Zoo.

Right now, he’s still getting used to his new home, but in the second week of February, the zoo is hopeful to see the two hit it off.

While welcoming Payton, the zoo is also saying goodbye to Nikita.

Nikita is a 15-year-old polar bear who has lived at the North Carolina Zoo since 2016.

The zoo had hoped Nikita and Anana would be able to have a cub, but five breeding seasons came and went with no results.

Instead, Nikita is on his way to the Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he may have better luck.

These decisions come through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums which uses a science-based approach to matching bears under human care in an attempt to foster more cub births. 

In 2008, the polar bear became the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened primarily due to climate change. There are an estimated 22,000 to 31,000 polar bears in the wild, and polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050, according to the zoo.

“Polar bear populations are declining, and zoos have a significant role in protecting the future of this vulnerable species,” said Jennifer Ireland, curator of mammals for the North Carolina Zoo. “When people see and learn more about polar bears and the effects of climate change in the Arctic, it brings awareness of their plight in the wild.”

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