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N.C. Zoo hopes for love connection as it introduces new male polar bear

Posted January 22, 2021 7:00 a.m. EST

Credit: North Carolina Zoo

The N.C. Zoo has a new resident in its midst—a 1,000-pound male polar bear who zookeepers hope will father a new polar bear cub soon.

Payton, 17, is moving from the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee to the N.C. Zoo on recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' Species Survival Plan. Once he gets a checkup from the zoo's veterinarians, he will meet Anana, the zoo's female polar bear, with the hopes of a love connection. The polar bear breeding season runs from February to April. Payton is currently getting used to his new home at the zoo. He and Anana will meet the second week of February. Anana, 22, moved to the zoo in 2014.

He'll take the place of a zoo favorite, Nikita, who arrived in 2016 but hasn't had a cub with Anana after five breeding seasons, according to the zoo. Nikita will go to Hogle Zoo in Salt Lake City. In 2008, the polar bear was the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Act as threatened because of climate change, according to the zoo. The zoo association works to match bears under human care to encourage more cub births.

“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, in a press release. “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."

Payton, the polar bear, at the N.C. Zoo

Payton was born at Brookfield Zoo in Chicago and gets his name from Walter Payton, the late running back for the Chicago Bears. He had moved to the zoo in Memphis with the hopes that he'd produce a cub with a female polar bear there, but it didn't happen.

“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, in the press release. “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.”

And there is one friendly face for Payton in North Carolina. Zookeeper Karen Warda was one of Payton's keepers in Memphis from 2009 to 2016. Warda, according to the N.C. Zoo, is Payton's main keeper for his first two weeks in North Carolina.

Some facts about polar bears, courtesy of the NC Zoo:

  • Polar bears, which are native to North America, are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. There are an estimated 22,000-31,000 in the wild and polar bear numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050.
  • Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, or the apex predator, in the Arctic. The only threats to polar bears are humans, other polar bears and climate change as the species struggles to survive.
  • Polar bears are dependent on the sea ice, which is hunting grounds for their primary prey – seals. With less sea ice each season, polar bears are left with a shortened hunting season and less food for survival.
  • Adult males typically weigh anywhere from 775 to more than 1,300 pounds. Adult females are smaller, 330 to 650 pounds.
  • In the wild, polar bears live an average of 15 to 18 years, although biologists have tagged a few bears in their early 30s. Under human care, bears can reach their mid-30s.

The N.C. Zoo is in Asheboro and is open to the public. Advanced tickets are required.