With little fanfare, three bear cubs seen around the world were returned to the Great Smoky Mountains in northwestern South Carolina earlier this month. Wildlife officials kept the release hush-hush fearing it could “turn into a three-ring circus,” said Dana Dodd, president of Appalachian Bear Rescue, which cared for the bears these last eight months.
The three bears, named Bennie, Jerry and Carrie, became an international news story in March after an Oconee County volunteer firefighter found them in a cardboard box on the side of the road. First he thought he’d found a litter of puppies. “Then I heard squealing, so I thought it was baby pigs. I got closer and picked one up. It was three baby bears,” he told a local Fox affiliate at the time.
CNN, The Today Show, The N.Y. Daily News and dozens of other news sites carried the story. “This has brought a lot of attention and been a big success for South Carolina,” Tom Swaynghan, wildlife biologist with SCDNR, said last week. “We were able to take three very small cubs and with a lot of help from some very good people we were able to release them back into the wild.”
South Carolina has two active bear populations with an estimated 1,200 bears in the northwest corner of the state–in and around the Great Smoky Mountains–and 200 to 300 in a coastal group near Myrtle Beach.
Just how the cubs ended up in a cardboard box is still a mystery.
“Obviously the mother died, but whether she was hit by a car or illegally harvested, we don’t know,” Swaynghan said. “We conducted an investigation, but weren’t able to find out much of what happened.”
Photos courtesy of Appalachian Bear Rescue
At just 2 lbs. 11 ounces, the two male cubs were driven to the Appalachian Bear Rescue, south of Knoxville, Tenn. a day after they were found. The female, Carrie, was too weak to travel, so she spent about three weeks gaining weight at Charles Towne Landing.
“Yes we know, bears don’t have names,” Dodd, the ABR president said, “and yes, we know there are plenty of people who don’t like naming wild animals, but our supporters aren’t going to call them ‘Bear No. 14675.’ Our curators speak of them only by number, but our friends and our fans know them by name.”
All the media attention has been a boon for the nonprofit, which doesn’t accept any state or federal money for their work. Shortly after the story broke in March, the group posted a donation link on their Facebook page where visitors could buy 25 pounds of peanuts to help feed the bears. More than a ton were purchased in the first 24 hours.
Just days old when they were found, the cubs required bottle feeding every two or three hours around the clock. “That young they don’t know how to go to the bathroom either,” Dodd said, “so just like a mother cat with kittens, the curators had to stimulate the area to get them to go–but of course they don’t use there tongues!”
Weaned at 10 weeks old to start breaking the bears of human contact, they were moved into a series of blind enclosures until they reach 100 pounds and were ready to be released. South Carolina has an over-the-counter bear season the last two weeks of October, so the cubs were held an additional few weeks to help ease their transition back into the mountains.
Since 1996, ABR has rehabilitated 196 bears–including nine this season–and all but a handful have been successfully released back into the wild. “The eight or ten that haven’t gone back, they all came in very habituated to people, either confiscated in a court case, or raised as pets,” Dodd said.
Releasing the bears, Dodd said, is the best part of the job.
“They deserve to live their life in the wild where they belong,” she said.