SALT LAKE CITY - Hogle Zoo said goodbye to Rizzo the polar bear last weekend, and now there is an outpouring of love and support from the community. The zoo says it’s the largest they’ve seen thus far.
“You had to invest a lot of time to get that relationship with Rizzo where she was willing to work with you, so, you know, finding out that we weren't looking at a lot of time left, that was really surprising and that was really hard,” said Zookeeper Michelle Hanenburg.
Hanenburg cared for Rizzo from the moment the bear arrived at Utah's Hogle Zoo.
She knew this bear had fans, but she said she didn’t realize just how many people would miss her.
“…talking about how she would interact with their kids, how much it meant to them, and how much of a connection everybody had with her: We weren't really prepared for that,” Hanenburg said.
Erica Hansen, community relations manager at Hogle Zoo, said they appreciate all of the support.
“We’ve been so grateful and so moved by the outpouring both on Facebook and then here to just come, we’ve all come down kind of one at a time on our own to read some of these by ourselves, because it really moves you to tears,” Hansen said.
More than 500 pictures are posted on the zoo's Facebook page, and thousands of messages have been left on the walls of Rizzo's enclosure.
“Rizzo had a big personality," Hanenburg said. "She liked things a certain way and she was very particular about what she wanted that day, and if you brought her the wrong treats that day she was really good at letting you know that, 'NO – that’s not going to work for me today.'"
Rizzo came from the Cincinnati zoo five years ago, and keepers nicknamed her the queen. After all, Rizzo knew full well she could charm both zoo keepers and guests.
“We learned how she liked to eat fish, like she preferred if they were given to her so that they didn't drop on the ground, because she didn't like it if they got dirty,” Hanenburg said.
When Rizzo wasn't her playful self, zoo keepers starting monitoring her and noticed her kidneys were failing. Hanenburg says kidney failure is very common among older polar bears.
“Everything is always for the animal's best interest, we wanted to make sure that Rizzo was comfortable, we didn’t want her to be in pain, we didn’t want to have a poor quality of life so we were assessing her constantly,” Hanenburg said.
Zoo keepers began end of life care, and Rizzo was euthanized on Saturday. She was 19 years old.
The zoo says ever since Rizzo's passing last Saturday, guests young and old have been eager to share their love and memories of their favorite polar bear.
“I remember she had this little trail, like a little route that she would always take, it was fun to watch,” said 11-year-old Makenzie, a frequent guest at Hogle Zoo.
But, Rizzo is remembered as more than an entertainer, she was also a climate change ambassador.
“To have kids have that amazing connection where they see that bear under water, and can see the fur and see how big those paws are, and how beautifully they move through the water, that's really what makes a connection and what makes people care about whats happening in the arctic and what they can do to help,” Hansen said.
The zoo says they are hopeful they will be able to get another polar bear soon.
“We’d love to, it's not entirely up to us, we will work closely with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and the species survival plan to kind of see where we are in the list of zoos that want and need a bear, but we really hope so, that’s our goal,”
The Hogle Zoo says because of Rizzo, they have a great relationship with a group called Polar Bears International, and hope to be able to continue to help raise awareness for polar bears in the wild.
“If people are interested in doing something in Rizzo’s memory, we encourage people to donate to Polar Bears International; they’re a huge group that is working towards climate change awareness and different things that are specifically designed to protect wild polar bears,” Hanenburg said.