Loaded for bear: Appalachian Bear Rescue updates Townsend facility
By Melanie Tucker | (email@example.com)
Since 1996, Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend has nurtured and released 186 black bears back into the wild after they were discovered injured, sick or orphaned.
The bears have come from seven states to this nonprofit organization over the past 17 years. Some were small newborns which somehow got separated from their mothers. Others were injured on the highway or found begging for food from humans. Many were days from death when they were brought in, given medical attention and food.
Then the time came when each was given a second chance back in the wild.
ABR is the only licensed facility in Tennessee for the rehabilitation of black bears. The most recent bear to take up temporary residence here was Colton, otherwise known to ABR caretakers as Bear No. 186.
Coy Blair is ABR’s new curator, hired back in July. There are no bears presently at the rescue-and-release facility because the black bears are wintering in their dens. Come spring, if there are those unlucky enough to get into crisis, ABR will be there to render aid.
Blair said a lot of work has been done over the last several months to make the 25 acres more secure and satisfactory for the bears.
There is now a cub nursery that has a small enclosure for any little ones being brought in, and also a heater, microwave and refrigerator to hold the required formula and adequate storage space. ABR is now able to buy formula in bulk, saving money. Cabinetry was added thanks to a generous donation.
In addition, there is a separate storage building for refrigerated food and a third for dry food storage. A fourth portable building is being used to store tools.
Acorns that are collected and donated from area school children can now be dried and stored in that specialized building, Blair explained. “It’s been a very successful program. Students at Mary Blount Elementary collected 660 pounds of acorns for our bears.”
Educating the public
The ABR property isn’t open to visitors and its location isn’t widely known for a reason. The bears are wild animals, not inhabitants of a zoo. It is not to their benefit to befriend humans since they will be going back to their natural habitat. Once rehabilitated, the bears are released close to where they were originally found.
To further educate the public about bear safety, ABR has launched a new public service campaign that features Knoxville newspaper columnist Sam Venable. It is currently on YouTube.
“Black bears are an East Tennessee icon,” said Heather Ripley, spokesman for ABR. “They appear cute and cuddly, but they are wild animals constantly in search of food — whether it is found in nature or in trash from campsites.”
According to ABR, black bears have a life expectancy of 12 to 15 years, but bears that rely on humans for food only live half that long. They wander into populated areas, get hit by cars and are easy targets for poachers. They can also die from eating trash.
Bears who get used to being around humans often have to be killed to protect the very people who feed them, Ripley explained. If you are in an area where bears are known to be, you should store trash in proper containers, she said.
Bears must forage
There are two large wild enclosures at ABR where the bears live until they are strong enough to go it alone in the wild. The second one is fairly new. Each is a half-acre.
There is also an acclimation enclosure where they make a pit stop first to allow tranquilizer drugs to wear off.
Blair stressed it is ABR’s mission to get the bears rehabilitated as soon as possible and with as little human contact as possible. They have even come up with some pretty ingenious ways to do that.
For instance, a zipline has recently been installed that will take the food down into the enclosures with humans at a greater distance away. “The bears won’t be able to see us or hear us and they might not be able to pick up our scents, either,” Blair said.
They also don’t want the bears to get used to waiting to be fed. The acorns are not placed in a neat pile that’s easy to get to, Blair said. Instead, the acorns are scattered across the enclosed area and the bears are required to forage for them.
“We need to make their experience here as close to the wild as it can be,” the curator explained.
Spring is coming
Other updates to the facility include a new water system, gravel added to the path in the buffer zone for ease of getting around and the soon-to-be added second observation tower at the completed second enclosure. Up top, Blair and the others providing care for the bears can see them, but the bears can’t see their human caretakers.
The floors in the enclosures have gone from straw bedding to material that can be washed out. All utilities have been placed underground and a new partnership has been formed with the Tennessee Department of Forestry on a Firewise campaign to help prevent fires. Jungle gyms have been constructed for the bears to give them opportunities to climb and exercise.
Blair said there was supposed to have been a good natural food supply for bears this past year, which generally means a bumper crop of cubs come spring. ABR has put in place several new additions that will make life for bears there more safe should they end up there as temporary guests, he said.
In 2012, APR cared for and then released 33 bears back into the wild. There is no way to know what 2013 will bring, but Blair said they want to be ready for whoever comes their way. It probably won’t be long before Bear No. 187 comes into their lives.