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NC Zoo Welcomes New Polar Bear, 'Payton'

Payton, a male polar bear, moved into the North Carolina Zoo on Friday, Jan. 22, 2021.
North Carolina Zoo

North Carolina has a new resident that weighs more than 1,000 pounds.

His name is Payton. He is a polar bear.

Payton was welcomed to the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro on Friday and the hope is that he’ll meet – and make babies with – the zoo’s female polar bear, Anana.

Breeding season for polar bears is typically February through April, the zoo says. Payton will be introduced to Anana probably around the second week of February, right around Valentine’s Day, after he receives a clean bill of health.

The zoo’s last male polar bear, Nikita, did not have a cub with Anana after five breading seasons. He is being moved to a zoo in Salt Lake City, Utah, according to a news release from the North Carolina Zoo.

Payton is 17-years-old, five years younger than Anana, and comes to North Carolina after spending time at a zoo in Memphis, Tennessee. He was relocated on the recommendation of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ (AZA) Species Survival Plan. Anana has been in North Carolina since 2014, coming to the zoo from another in Rochester, New York.

The North Carolina Zoo hopes that Payton, its newest male polar bear, will breed with Anana.
Credit North Carolina Zoo
The North Carolina Zoo hopes that Payton, its newest male polar bear, will breed with Anana.

According to the North Carolina Zoo, AZA 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.

“Seeing Payton leave is bittersweet. He has been a part of our lives at Memphis Zoo for the last 15 years,” Amanda Moses, the communications specialist for the Memphis Zoo, said in a statement. “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.”

Payton should recognize a familiar face at the North Carolina Zoo though. Zookeeper Karen Warda was one of Payton's keepers at the Memphis Zoo from 2009 to 2016. She will help him acclimate to his new digs during his first two weeks in North Carolina.

“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."

Payton, the North Carolina Zoo's newest male polar bear, was born in Chicago and has also lived in a zoo in Memphis.
Credit North Carolina Zoo
Payton, the North Carolina Zoo's newest male polar bear, was born in Chicago and has also lived in a zoo in Memphis.

Polar bears are listed as vulnerable on the International Union for Conservation of Nature Red List of Threatened Species. According to the North Carolina Zoo, there are an estimated 22,000 to 31,000 in the wild and population numbers are projected to decline by 30% by 2050. Polar bears are at the top of the food chain, so climate change is the species’ biggest threat. They are dependent on sea ice, which are hunting grounds for seals, their primary prey. With less sea ice each season, polar bears are left with a shortened hunting season and less food. Polar bears can typically live up to about 18 years in the wild, but can reach their mid-30s under the care of humans.

The North Carolina Zoo is a member of a group of 40 zoos, aquariums and museums that are Arctic Ambassador Centers through a partnership with Polar Bears International.

Born at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, Illinois in 2003, Payton was named after legendary Chicago Bears running back Walter Payton, who still ranks second all-time in NFL career rushing yards.

Mitchell Northam is a Digital Producer for WUNC. His past work has been featured at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, SB Nation, the Orlando Sentinel and the Associated Press. He is a graduate of Salisbury University and is also a voter in the AP Top 25 poll for women's college basketball.
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