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Peyton in his habitat at the North Carolina Zoo.   File photo

Zoo mourns the loss of polar bear Payton

ASHEBORO — The male polar bear at the North Carolina Zoo died last week while being transferred to the Lousiville Zoo in Kentucky, where Payton was going to make a new home.


Payton had lived at the zoo in Asheboro since 2021. He had arrived to replace Nikita, who spent five years at the zoo but did not produce a cub with Anana after five breeding seasons.


Payton was being transferred to the Louisville Zooas part of a polar bear breeding partnership. The transfer was recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). Payton was accompanied by an experienced care team during the planned transfer operation. 


After the care team left the NC Zoo with Payton, they performed routine checks on the 1,000-pound polar bear during the trip. On the second check, less than two hours away from the NC Zoo, the care team found Payton non-responsive. He was immediately transported to a nearby large animal veterinarian, who confirmed that Payton had passed.  


The bear was transported back to the NC Zoo, where a necropsy (an animal autopsy) was conducted by Zoo veterinary staff.  


According to Dr. Jb Minter, the Zoo’s Director of Animal Health, “The necropsy indicated some evidence of cardiac disease, a tumor on his adrenal gland as well as some moderate osteoarthritis in keeping with his advanced age. Tissue samples will be sent to outside laboratories for further testing to help determine the cause of his death.”  


A full investigation into the incident will be conducted. 


Polar bear keeper Melissa Vindigni reminisced, "He was the best boy bear. 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." 


Payton arrived at the North Carolina Zoo in January 2021 to be a mate for female polar bear Anana, as recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). The AZA uses a science-based approach to matching bears under human care in an attempt to foster more cub births. He had previously been at the Memphis Zoo and was born at Brookfield Zoo Nov. 8, 2003.