Two young polar bears make their public debut at Utah's Hogle Zoo

Polar bears are back at Utah’s Hogle Zoo, filling a void created in April by the death of fan favorite Rizzo.

One of the new arrivals, Nora, has had a rough young life.

She was abandoned by her mother shortly after birth almost two years ago at the zoo in Columbus, Ohio. Keepers pulled her aside and hand-reared her, until September 2016, when they sent her to the Oregon Zoo, hoping an older polar bear there could be Nora’s mentor.

“For a young bear that was hand-raised, the companionship of another bear is so important for developing social skills,” said Amy Cutting, who overseas Oregon Zoo’s marine life.

But then that older bear died.

Enter Hope.

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Brinlee Densley, 10, of West Jordan, gives polar bear Nora a high-five at Utah's Hogle Zoo Tuesday, October 10, 2017.

She’s a month younger than Nora, born and raised at the Toledo Zoo. Now that she’s almost two — the age when young polar bears in the wild get the boot from their moms and start living on their own — Hope was designated by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums as a good candidate for a transfer.

Salt Lake City was the place to bring Nora and Hope together. Polar bears represent one of six species that Hogle Zoo is focusing on conserving in captivity.

“The hope is that Hope will be a great mentor bear for Nora,” said Hogle Zoo spokeswoman Erica Hansen, noting Nora weighs 180 pounds less than Hope because a metabolic bone disease stunted her growth. Nora’s mom may have sensed something like that was wrong when she abandoned her as a baby, Hansen theorized.

Since their arrival in Utah last month, both bears have been getting acquainted with their new keepers and pens at Hogle Zoo, then getting to know each other a bit. They’ve advanced enough that on Tuesday they were introduced to the public.

“Oh wow,” said 2-year-old Vincent Bleazard of West Jordan as he peered through the glass wall of the polar bears’ pen and saw Nora tucking herself away in a cave, getting ready for a nap.

“She’s giving herself a little cleaning” first, said mom Valerie, addressing Vincent and his 3 1/2-year-old sister, Boston. “We’ll come see her a lot next summer. We miss our old polar bear.”

She was referring to Rizzo, who died at age 19 of renal failure.

For Hope and Nora’s debut, zookeepers decorated their pen with a red ‘O’ for Ohio and a green ‘O’ for Oregon, college-sports ornamentation the young bears took little time demolishing. But that’s fine. That’s what bears do. And the zookeepers want nothing more than for these bears, particularly Nora, to act like bears.

“Introductions have gone better than we could have expected,” said keeper Joanne Randinitis.

“We were concerned that Nora wouldn’t know how to react to another bear,” she added. “Both bears are eating a lot and playing with their toys. They’re both resting on opposite ends of the exhibit. They both initiate approaching each other and retreating, so neither one is overpowering the other. It’s just been great.”

While Nora may have been neglected at birth, she’s become a rock star of sorts to followers of zoo social media. People loved seeing photos the Oregon Zoo posted of the playful polar bear scratching her back in an ice-filled plastic swimming pool.

| Courtesy Utah's Hogle Zoo Nora may have been abandoned by her mother, but her playful nature won the hearts of thousands on Facebook when the young polar bear — who has been paired up with a polar bear named Hope at Utah's Hogle Zoo — was filmed by Oregon Zoo staff playing in a pool of ice.

Coming next to Hogle Zoo: A new wolf.