NOTE: The accompanying video was filmed in 2021, when Payton first arrived at the North Carolina Zoo.

ASHEBORO, N.C. (WNCN) — The North Carolina Zoo is bringing in a grief counselor as their staff mourns the loss of their favorite male polar bear, the zoo said Thursday.

Zoo officials said the male polar bear, named Payton, passed away Wednesday after he was found unresponsive during a breeding trip.

Male polar bear Payton (NC Zoo)

According to a news release from the zoo, Payton was being transferred to the Louisville Zoo in Kentucky as part of a polar bear breeding partnership.

“The transfer was recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA),” the release said. “Payton was accompanied by an experienced care team during the planned transfer operation.”

It said the care team performed routine checks on the 1,000-pound bear after leaving the zoo with him.

During the second check, about two hours away from the zoo, the care team said they found Payton unresponsive.

They said they immediately brought him to a nearby large animal veterinarian, who confirmed that Payton had passed.

What happened?

Zoo officials said Payton was taken back to the North Carolina Zoo, where zoo veterinary staff performed a necropsy, an autopsy for animals.

“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,” said Dr. Jb Minter, the Zoo’s Director of Animal Health.

He said tissue samples will be sent to outside laboratories for further testing to help determine the cause of his death.

The NC Zoo says full investigation into the incident will be conducted. 

Payton’s legacy

According to the NC Zoo, Payton arrived in January of 2021 to be a mate for the female polar bear Anana, as recommended by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA).

Payton, male polar bear at North Carolina Zoo. (NC Zoo)

“The AZA uses a science-based approach to matching bears under human care in an attempt to foster more cub births,” the zoo said in their release.

Payton was born at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois in 2008 and had previously been at the Memphis Zoo in Tennessee, the NC Zoo said.

In their news release Thursday, zoo officials said they were deeply saddened to announce Payton’s passing, and their staff and animal care team are devastated by the loss.

“He was the best boy bear,” said Polar bear keeper Melissa Vindigni. “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,” he continued. “I learned so much from him and I was blessed to work with him. I will never forget the things he taught me.” 

The North Carolina Zoo said they have brought a grief counselor on site for the zoo staff.