By RICH FOLEY
It’s true. My collection of stuffed bears has been joined by a real one with my recent adoption of Challenger, a forlorn little bruin from Tennessee. I guess that makes me a parent as a living, breathing black bear now is dependent on me, as well as many more “parents” in his battle to survive.
Some time ago, I learned of the existence of Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR), a non-profit organization located in Townsend, Tenn., near Smoky Mountain National Park. The park is famous for its population of black bears, but lately, times have been hard for them, especially so for their tiny cubs.
Last year, crops of berries, cherries, grapes, hickory nuts, chestnuts and acorns were severely impacted by excessive rains. In some cases, the naturally herbivorous bears, desperate for food, were spotted eating dead animal carcasses. One bear even broke into a Gatlinburg candy store in an attempt to find food.
The folks at ABR come into the picture when orphaned cubs need help. The organization was formed in 1989 after crop failures similar to last year’s put bears in danger. Since 1996, when ABR completed construction of bear pens that simulated the bear’s natural habitat, orphaned bears have been taken in and cared for at ABR’s facility until able to be re-introduced to the wild.
In 2009, 23 cubs were taken in and cared for by ABR. That number was the record until 33 young bruins were brought to the facility in 2011. Lisa Stewart, curator and caretaker for the bears at ABR, said she had numerous reports of mother bears dying of malnourishment, leaving orphaned cubs behind, plus at least three more mothers that were killed by cars.
So far in 2012, the situation has only gotten worse, with 18 cubs already admitted to ABR for care. One of those is my new son, Challenger.
ABR estimates it costs $3,000 for each bear it takes care of, and since they operate on donations, the more people donating, the better. No, I didn’t give ABR $3,000. He and the other bears all need dozens of “parents” to help them.
The only down side to adopting an ABR cub is that you don’t get visitation rights. But that is obviously in the bear’s best interests as bears that become habituated to humans are the ones that run into trouble, trouble that usually ends up bad for the bear.
In fact, curator Stewart is the only human who has any contact with the bears. She stays hidden when feeding the bears in the pens, although in a few cases of extremely tiny bears she had to resort to bottle feeding for awhile.
According to an ABR report, Challenger was admitted to the facility on February 5th in a severely malnourished condition, weighing just over 10 pounds. That is a normal weight for a three month-old cub coming out of the den for the first time, but Challenger was already one year old when he came to ABR.
You’d think the poor little cub would be ravenous, but he didn’t eat for the first week in his new pen. Finally, he started eating applesauce with Pedialyte, yogurt and Puppy Chow. Regular dry dog food was too big for him, but he happily enjoys crunching on the Puppy Chow. Soon, he should be able to eat peanuts and hazelnuts, too.
In addition to not eating at first, Challenger also hid from his pen mate, Hardy. The bears have Christmas trees in their pen, and Challenger tucked in behind his to stay away from Hardy. But in an e-mail I received recently from ABR president Dana Dodd, Challenger has now made friends with Hardy, so he seems to be on his way to becoming a healthy, happy bear.
Since I don’t get visitation rights, the folks at ABR sent me a small stuffed bear named Bart, apparently as a substitute. Bart looks quite comfortable among my other stuffed bears. He isn’t as shy as Challenger was at first.
Although ABR doesn’t allow visitors to its facility, a series of hidden cameras in its pens allows them to post photos and videos online. as well as send a photo to the bear’s adoptive parent. That way, the next time somebody pulls out a photo of a child or grandchild, in return they will have the honor of seeing my son, Challenger.
As a bonus, I’ll be able to laugh to myself when I hear someone complain about their children. I’m sure Challenger is grateful for everything ABR and his adoptive parents do for him, even though he never sees where the food is coming from. You’re welcome, Challenger. Adopting you was worth every penny.