Townsend is a tourist destination for those seeking respite among nature’s beauty in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, but this small East Tennessee community is also home to a care facility for another warm-blooded species — the black bear.
Appalachian Bear Rescue, founded in 1996, is a bear rehabilitation center that takes in injured, sick and orphaned black bear cubs and nurtures them back to health using the expertise of the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine and its six curators, led by Coy Blair. Some bears come from as far away as Louisiana, as in the case of two recent siblings, Boudreaux and Beignet, which were just a few weeks old when they arrived, having been saved from their flooded den with no momma bear in sight.
Others arrive here from GSMNP; in some cases, the mother bear has been hit and killed by a car, or the bears are found wandering and struggling alone. Many times, ABR never knows how they ended up alone. Curators only know they need help and step in.
The facility isn’t open to the public, and the bears are cared for with minimal human contact. That’s so they can be released successfully back into the wilds from whence they came.
However, ABR operates the Trillium Cove Visitor and Education Center in Townsend, which features videos of some of the rescue’s past residents, information on black bears and how humans can co-exist with the bears.
More than 300
As of June 11, ABR had cared for 309 bears, nine of which are currently in wild enclosures at the facility. Some stay for six months or more. Eight of the cubs at ABR are just 5 months old. The other is a yearling, named Sparks.
Dana Dodd is executive director. She said there are three siblings named Flicker, Firefly and Downy that came to the Townsend facility from neighboring Sevier County.
“They are in the same enclosure as Raven and Chickadee, who also happened to come from Sevier County,” she said. “That is simply by chance. These five are the closest in size, 15 to 18 pounds or so.”
Ferdinand, Dumplin and Tweetsie are in a separate wild enclosure, Dodd said. They weigh 13 to 16 pounds each. The facility was anticipating the arrival of another bear, from Louisiana.
Sparks is from GSMNP, Ferdinand came from Kentucky, while Dumplin and Tweetsie are from nearby Elizabethton. The rest hail from Sevier County.
It is on ABR’s Facebook page that followers learn of the antics of these wild animals, their progress and which ones have just arrived. People from all over the world check in daily to see what Flicker and his siblings had for breakfast or which feisty bear took a dip in the cubby pool or wrestled the day away before crashing on a platform in the trees.
Sparks, the yearling, is doing well, Dodd reported. He is the reclusive one, she said. This bear gets daily visits from a crow that wants to dine with him.
“He has become accustomed to the crow, but I can’t say that he loves the company,” Dodd said. “He is also pretty funny about the cubby pool. He goes into it, he gets apples and pears out of it and he sticks his paws and part of his body in it, but so far, he hasn’t been willing to just take a dive.”
The inhabitants of ABR have several toys and objects to keep them busy, from the cubby pool and culvert den to climbing apparatus, logs and toys. The tiniest bears have heartbeat puppies that are very comforting to a young animal, particularly ones that have lost their mothers, Dodd explained.
Needs are being met
ABR has a cub nursery where the smallest of temporary residents go first. Then it’s on to Hartley House, which was named for one of ABR’s bears that touched so many hearts. He was found nearly dead in Kentucky and was so emaciated he had lost much of his fur. He wouldn’t have survived more than another day or so more on his own. Hartley made an astonishing recovery and was released back into the wild.
The bears then are located to an acclimation pen so they can adjust to being outdoors. The next destination is the wild enclosures where the bears can climb trees and be as close to the wild as possible while under the watchful eye of curators.
ABR can get a call any day about a bear that needs its assistance. The nonprofit works closely with Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency and other wildlife agencies in this part of the country. Once bears are transferred to ABR, they go to UTCVM to be checked out. Most will have ticks and other parasites and require medications. Then, it’s on to ABR.
The bears currently at ABR will be residents for a while.
“It is a certainty that we will have bears on-site until at least late November or December,” Dodd said. “On Friday, we will have nine cubs of the year that will need to be with us that long. Sparks will go back to the wild much sooner than the cubs. Yearlings pick up weight very quickly when they have access to nutritious food.”
Dodd added that ABR can keep up to 40 bears at any one time, so they have plenty of capacity if more bears need help.
Work continues at the facility, which includes updating the office to handle six curators who must rotate in and out throughout the week. Someone must be on-site at all times. Their job is made easier with cameras all over the center so bear activity can be monitored.
Wanting to help
This rehab center for black bears relies on financial support from the public. It holds fundraisers each year, but those have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. The next event will be the Bearly 5K, which will be virtual. It is set to take place Oct. 31.
Curators, in addition to Lead Curator Coy Blair, include Assistant Curators Ashley Chance and Victoria Frailey. Janet Dalton, Tom Faulkner and Eric Noseworthy are part-time curators. Blair joined the team in 2012. Faulkner helped get this organization founded.
Work was supposed to be going on with a new enclosure but that had to be put on hold because bears are present.
One of ABR’s most busy years came when there was a mast failure. There is no way to predict how things will go in 2020, but Dodd said there are positive signs.
“It’s too early to tell, but I know there was a lot of oak pollen this year,” she said. “We hope that means good things for the acorn crop this fall. I’ve heard people talking about seeing lots of berries out there, too. I hope the weather will hold and both the soft mast and hard mast will be abundant for all wildlife.”