SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – A recent cargo airplane flight from North Carolina to Salt Lake City carried an especially unique delivery addressed to Utah’s Hogle Zoo.

En tow on the plane was the zoo’s newest resident, a 15-year-old polar bear named Nikita, accompanied by a crew of handlers from the Salt Lake City-based zoo and headed to his new home.

Nikita, who had been at the North Carolina Zoo since 2016, had been reassigned, so to speak, to live at Hogle after a few years of failing to breed with the female polar bear he lived with at the zoo in Asheboro.

Using a science-based approach that has been compared to a “dating service for animals,” Nikita was sent to the Hogle Zoo by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums to live with two other female polar bears. Time will tell if Nikita and the other bears will hit it off. For the time being, Nikita is currently staying in a 30-day quarantine, which is standard protocol for animals entering a new zoo.

Getting the massive creature, who weighs about 1,200 pounds and stands 10-and-a-half feet tall on his back legs, across the country to his new home was a giant undertaking.

“It is a very intense process, and it takes months and months of planning and permitting and paperwork and scheduling,” described Hogle Zoo community relations manager Erica Hansen.
Nikita was flown from North Carolina on a FedEx cargo plane, along with two keepers from Hogle Zoo a couple of weeks ago. To get him ready for his big moving day, keepers worked to train Nikita to get used to climbing in his crate using treats. That way, when the day arrived to send him to Utah, he was ready to fly without the need for anesthesia or any sedatives. The transportation is done as humanely as possible to minimize the disruption and stress for the animal, according to Hansen.

The zoo’s conservation director, Liz Larsen, echoed Hansen’s sentiments, detailing the preparation that came with getting ready to welcome Nikita to Hogle. This process involved many, many practice runs. At the same time, the keepers were working with Nora, a female polar bear who was headed to the Oregon Zoo. Nora didn’t have a flight on her itinerary, instead was driven to Portland with an escort from two keepers from that zoo. Hogle Zookeepers did similar training and practice with Nora to prepare her for her road trip.

Now that Nikita is in Utah and making his Hogle Zoo debut on Thursday, Hansen expects him to be a star attraction.

“The North Carolina community absolutely loved him. I received messages just from, their Facebook friends and people who have followed his story, and they were so sad to see him go but they keep telling us, oh you’re just gonna love this bear,” said Hansen. “He’s very playful, he’s very engaging. He likes his visitors, he likes his keepers, and they tell us that he loved his pool in North Carolina so we’re hoping that means lots of great underwater viewing opportunities when he’s on exhibit here at Hogle Zoo.”

Larsen hopes that those who come to visit Nikita at the Hogle Zoo will understand the impact seeing these animals in person can have on polar bears across the world.

“When you come to visit the zoo, that in itself is an act of conservation because, with every visit, we turn that into helping us help polar bears in the wild,” said Larson, who continued to add that that zoo works with polar bear conservationists in the Arctic, Alaska, and Canada.

Many of the zoo’s studies and technologies with polar bears can go on to affect policy changes and ultimately, raise money for the preservation of the species. Polar bears are listed as a threatened species under the Unites States’ Endangered Species Act and are considered vulnerable in other countries like Russia and Canada.

It is also hoped that folks will come to see Nikita and the other polar bears at the newly refurbished Rocky Shores exhibit to fully grasp how large and impressive the bears are, in addition to the other interesting animals at Hogle Zoo.

“There’s a lot of cool images on our phone and our TV screens, but nothing beats the opportunity to see a polar bear up close in person,” Larsen said. “Nothing compares to that moment.”