Their names are Ferdinand, Dumplin’, Tweetsie, Raven, Chickadee and Sparks — all current Townsend residents whose caretakers can’t wait for the day when they can head for the hills.
All of them are black bears under the care of Appalachian Bear Rescue, a nonprofit that takes in injured and orphaned cubs to provide the needed attention that will give them a second chance at life in the wild.
Their stories are similar. Ferdinand came to ABR on April 24 after he was found severely malnourished, anemic and dehydrated on a Kentucky farm. He weighed in at 6 pounds and was 3 months old at the time.
Dumplin’ joined Ferdinand at the facility May 6 from Elizabethton after he was also found motherless and needed assistance. A few days later, wildlife officials discovered Dumplin’s sister and she was captured, joining her brother. She was give the name Tweetsie. All of these cubs are the same age.
The other set of siblings under the care of ABR curators are Raven and Chickadee. They were found May 18 by members of a mountain community in Sevier County minus their mother. ABR Executive Director Dana Dodd said members of this community had seen the mother and two cubs frequently over the spring.
“Technically, we don’t know what happened to their mother,” Dodd said. “They had seen the mom and her cubs a lot. They said they heard a gunshot and then didn’t see her anymore. All the neighbors started seeing just the two cubs and no mother.”
These residents then were able to contact Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which then contacted ABR. TWRA waited 24 hours before setting traps to make sure mother bear wasn’t coming back. She didn’t.
Using traps is tricky, Dodd explained. The only food these small cubs are used to is mother’s milk, so it is hard to tempt them into a cage.
“Most of them have never had a sardine or a honeybun just yet,” she explained.
No easy task
It was rough terrain and difficult to reach the bears, but officials were successful. Both of the cubs climbed trees and wouldn’t come down. They each finally came down low enough that officials were able to nab them with a catch pole instead of a trap.
Raven and Chickadee are both females and had the usual medical issues when brought to ABR. They are taking worm medication and were covered in ticks. But one of these tested positive for ringworm, a type of fungus. Dodd said she has not seen another bear with this condition at ABR. Both are being treated and must be in quarantine for three weeks before being placed in an enclosure with Ferdinand, Dumplin’ and Tweetsie.
What do bears do all day when they have been used to following momma bear around?
“They go a mile a minute every day,” Dodd said. “One hundred miles a minute. It is funny to watch them. They go so hard — running, climbing, wrestling and playing. Then it’s like they fall over. It’s like someone turns them off. They just fall over and you can see them sleep for a while.”
But only for a little while, Dodd said.
“If you watch long enough, one of them will reach out and smack the other and it all begins again.”
It seems Ferdinand and Dumplin’ have become besties. Tweetsie, hesitant to join the gang at first, is fitting right in. All three are recovering in Hartley House.
Raven and Chickadee are at the Red Roof Recovery Center.
ABR’s facility is off-limits to all but curators and staff. There is a visitors center in Trillium Cove in Townsend.
The more mature bear
The oldest bear calling ABR home for now is Sparks; he was found in Great Smoky Mountains National Park on May 12. Despite being 15 months old, he weighed a mere 18 pounds. He will spend less time at ABR, Dodd explained. He needs to bulk up and gain strength.
It is a given, Dodd said, that the five cubs will be there until later in the year. Yearlings like Sparks are here for much shorter spans.
“A few groceries and he will be able to pack on the weight and go home,” the executive director said.
Home for each of them is the area from whence they came. Raven and Chickadee will be released in the Sevier County area, while Sparks will return to GSMNP. Carter County is home for Dumplin’ and Tweetsie. It will be back to Kentucky for Ferdinand.
It has been a while since ABR was bear free. Dodd said the 2018 bears were released by Dec. 20 of that year. The first bear of 2019 was Hartley, who came on Feb. 14. He was furless and wouldn’t have survived much longer had wildlife officials not intervened. He was from Kentucky and taken back after a miraculous recovery.
“From Dec. 20, 2018, to Feb. 14, 2019 — that is the only time we haven’t had bears,” Dodd said. After Hartley came the Louisiana twins, Boudreaux and Beignet, on March 1.
Beignet, Boudreaux, Balthazar and Jessamine, four yearlings who had spent months recovering from malnourishment and other maladies, were released from ABR just a few weeks ago. Three were taken back to Louisiana and the other to its native South Carolina.
If bears aren’t there
It is during downtime that ABR officials work on renovating and cleaning areas. There are also plans to build an additional wild enclosure. With bears under care continuously this year and the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, some things are put on hold.
They have renovated the recovery center, updated the flooring in Hartley House, acquired new nursery cages and framed in a shed to make it indoor instead of outdoor storage. Dodd said things are being done in phases.
“Things we could actually get done were first on the list,” Dodd explained. “We didn’t want to raise money with our More Room in the Den Campaign and then have to sit on it. We want to be able to show people what we are dong with their money.”
The fact there is a lot of bear activity now doesn’t bode well for how the season will go, Dodd predicted. She said people have the responsibility to do the right thing when it comes to wild animals. Locking cabin doors and vehicles is a given, she said.
Dodd said she has noticed multiple incidents of bears entering homes and vehicles this spring. Many have made the local news media. Most have been in the Gatlinburg area. These bears are a threat to public safety, she said.
“Bears that become habituated to humans and human food usually do not make it,” she said. “When we visit bear country, we must live responsibly. It’s pretty easy to be ‘BearWise.’ When we are not, bears lose.”
Wildlife had the benefit of not seeing humans as the coronavirus pandemic closed down state and national parks for weeks. Most parks are reopened. Dodd said the bears and other wild animals probably enjoyed their solitude.
“If people would just enjoy from a distance it would be so much better,” she said. “If everyone could learn it’s better to have them in your heart than in your hands.”