Frequently Asked Questions
These are some of the questions we are frequenly asked. If you have a question that is not answered here, please e-mail ABR's Volunteer Educators:
1. What is ABR's mission?
To rehabilitate orphaned and injured bears for release to the wild; to educate the public about black bears and the regional threats facing them; and to research bear attributes which may help solve other environmental or health related issues.
2. Do you allow visitors to see the bears at ABR?
No. Tennessee law states that bears housed in rehabilitation facilities shall not be exhibited nor come into public contact under any circumstances. Even though we can't "exhibit" our bears, we know our supporters enjoy hearing about them so we added a section to our ABR Bears page so you can keep track of our current family! Download the State of TN's Rules and Regulations of Live Wildlife (pdf) -- see page 7, section s3
3. Why does it harm bears to be fed by humans?
The biggest problem wildlife officers face in dealing with black bears is that people feed bears. People have been told for decades that “Garbage Kills Bears” and a “Fed Bear is a Dead Bear” but somehow it doesn’t sink in. ABR knows of people who live near ABR who will not stop feeding bears. They just don’t or won’t understand that people who feed bears, kill bears. Here are the facts and they are not pretty.
Black bears are wild animals. When humans feed bears (or leave garbage where it can be taken by bears) bears expect food from humans. They stop acting as wild animals. Fed bears develop highly unsafe habits. They charge at people, they break into cars, buildings or tents looking for food and on occasion have injured or killed people. A fed bear typically passes on its bad habits to its offspring or to other bears.
Some people (who feed bears) seem to believe it won’t hurt if I feed a bear “just this once.” What they do not realize is that any bear that is being fed by humans associates food with humans. Bears naturally fear and avoid people. They typically feed during the evening and night. They rest during the day. Any bear that is in developed areas during the day or at night and shows no fear of humans has undoubtedly been fed many times before.
Bears who eat garbage don’t eat just eat the food in the garbage, they ingest the trash as well. It is quite common that when a garbage bear, as it is called, is trapped, its fecal matter will include aluminum foil and plastic wrappers. One bear that regularly ate garbage from a dumpster near the National Park boundary was later found dead near the dumpster. The bear was otherwise healthy and no wounds were observed on the bear’s carcass. While the exact cause of death is unknown, it is believed the bear may have had digestive problems or compaction caused by the trash. People who feed bears, kill bears.
Because fed bears frequent developed areas, they are much more likely to be killed by cars than are wild bears. For example, on June 23, 2007, at 1:30 a.m., a 350 pound black bear was killed when it was struck by a vehicle on the “spur” road between Gatlinburg and Pigeon Forge. Officials in the Smokies concluded that the bear was a garbage bear because when it was killed, it was walking down the middle of the highway and was in excellent condition despite the fact that at that particular time there was a shortage of natural foods due to drought and a late spring freeze.
We want to be very clear. No one should ever blame any National Park personnel or wildlife officer who is forced to euthanize (kill) a bear. None of them signed on to have to kill the animals they try to protect. Nor should we blame people who have killed bears in self-defense, or the drivers of cars who have killed bears. Many bears’ deaths are solely attributable to the people who fed them, whether they are fed intentionally or by people leaving garbage containers out where bears can get into them. People who feed bears, kill bears.
4. Why don't ABR bears become habituated?
Appalachian Bear Rescue has assisted close to 180 bears to date and not even one bear released from the facility has ever been reported as a “garbage” bear or a “nuisance” bear. ABR attributes this record to our procedures so we will describe them here:
When it has been determined by wildlife officials that a cub has been orphaned (after 48 hours of monitoring and giving every opportunity for the sow to return for her cub), the cub is captured and admitted to ABR.
If the cub is over 5 pounds in weight, it is immediately placed on a commercial formula, bottle or bowl-fed every 3-4 hours, and housed with other cubs for comfort and companionship (offering a minimum of human contact). If the cub weighs under 5 pounds, wildlife officials immediately begin the search to find a suitable surrogate mother in the wild while the cub receives care at ABR’s facility.
If a cub can be reintroduced to the wild immediately with a surrogate mother and siblings, the process moves quickly. If not, the cub is raised at ABR’s facility for later release to the wild. Cubs arriving at ABR’s facility in the spring are weaned by June and introduced to a 1/2-acre bear enclosure which offers numerous hardwood trees, natural dens, and man-made streams and water sources (pools).
Upon introduction to the bear enclosure, the cubs no longer see humans or receive any human contact (unless medical attention is required). The enclosure’s fence is covered with an 8’ black blind which blocks the cubs’ view of humans or unnatural sights. Food is tossed over the fence and scattered so the cubs must forage in a natural manner.
The cubs’ diet consists of fruits, berries, nuts and some vegetables that are similar to the natural diet they will find in their wild habitat. Guidelines from TWRA (Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency), state that bear cubs must weigh at least 50 pounds before they can sustain themselves in the wild.
ABR’s procedure is to make sure the cubs have attained that weight and that they also exhibit normal foraging behavior, interacting/vocalizing with other cubs and climbing skills. The cubs should exhibit positive bear behavior by staying in the trees during the day and descending to eat at night. If the cubs are moving around for short periods of time during the day, they should immediately retreat to the trees when they hear unusual noises or smell unusual odors.
The goal at ABR is to make sure bears don’t want to associate with people on any level. During their months in residence with no human contact, the cubs are naturally cautious and afraid of people and retreat to the trees for safety if they hear humans or strange sounds. This is the reason ABR does not have visitors.
When all of the above-mentioned criteria are met, cubs are prepared for release. Cubs admitted from the National Park area will be returned to a location in the Park, as close as possible to their origination. Cubs admitted from Tennessee but outside the National Park, will be released in one of the TWRA wildlife management areas that offer thousands of acres of plentiful food, water and safe habitat. Cubs admitted from out-of-state wildlife agencies will be returned to their home states .
The cubs are trapped and put in small holding areas. When officers arrive at the ABR facility to prepare the cubs for transport, the cubs are darted with a mild sedative to allow approximately 30 minutes for a final health check and to measure/weigh them. During this final exam, the cubs are given numbered ear tags and lip tattoos for identification purposes. The cubs are not aware of any of these procedures while they are sedated. Then, the cubs are loaded in a bear box for transport.
We normally try to release the cubs in pairs, athough there is no scientific data that supports the idea that the cubs stay together in the wild. Bears are ordinarily solitary animals except during breeding season or where food sources are concentrated and abundant. Though they may have enjoyed the interactions of being with other cubs while at ABR, their natural instincts tell them to make their way in the wild alone.
One exception to our hands-off procedure: If an injured cub or yearling is admitted to ABR, the same procedures apply AFTER the injured bear has had a proper recuperation period. There is no set timeline from admittance to release of an injured bear. The injured bear is given all the time it needs in order to completely heal and rehabilitate from its injury. From time to time, that recuperation period requires that the injured bear must be “wintered.” When this situation occurs, the bear is released the following spring or summer after it has fully recovered.
ABR's procedures are constantly re-evaluated so we can maintain our perfect record.
5. What do I do if a bear comes around my house?
The best thing to do is to make sure you have no food of any kind where a bear can get to it. This includes pet food and bird food. A bear that can't get food will likely move on to some other location.
Bears do not naturally seek food from humans. This bear has likely learned to identify certain houses with obtaining food. Bears are smart. They are also strong. A determined bear looking for food can get through a screen door or even a glass door in no time at all. For other residential safety tips, visit our bear safety page.
When a bear does comes around, make loud noises. If the bear is not habituated, that should make it leave. If it does not leave, it is too used to obtaining food from humans. If the bear continues to come back and you feel uncomfortable,you should call the authorities (in Tennessee call the TWRA) to obtain further help. TWRA's general number is 1-800-332-0900.
6. Can I call ABR to come pickup or relocate a bear?
No. ABR's permit with the TWRA states that we cannot transport bears. That means, of course, that every bear we help has to be brought to us by a TWRA officer or a National Park ranger (or an officer with another state or federal wildlife agency).
7. How can I help ABR?
As a nonprofit organization, any cash donation made to us is likely going to be tax-deductible. To be absolutely sure you would need to consult your tax advisor.
We also need donations of food for our bears. In the late summer of each year, we collect fruit, such as apples and pears, at various locations. In the fall months we ask for acorns and hickory nuts to feed the bears.
We are always in need of volunteers for one project or another. Running an organization of this sort requires a lot of organization. We need volunteers to help at several events throughout the year. Please see our Volunteer section for more information.
One thing we don't need are people who offer to be volunteers because they think they will be invited to see our bears. It is understandable, to be sure, but this is one of our biggest problems! It is surprising how many people come by our site unannounced asking (or in some cases, demanding) to see our bears. Tennessee law does not permit us to exhibit bears for the reasons stated above.
Please keep checking our site as well as our Blog because we are not shy about saying how people can help Appalachian Bear Rescue.
8. I saw a bear that needs help, what should I do?
If the bear is a cub, leave it alone for a while. Often, a mother bear will return to an area to look for her cub. Keeping your distance and waiting is the best thing you can do. If the mother has not appeared after several days, then she is not likely to return. At that point, leave the cub alone and contact the TWRA to report the abandoned cub. If the bear appears injured, call us immediately. DO NOT APPROACH ANY BEAR, ESPECIALLY AN INJURED BEAR. ABR will contact the proper authorities to arrange for pickup and, if necessary, treatment.
9. Why do bears attack humans?
Attacks on humans are remarkably rare events but when they happen, they inevitably get the attention of the national news media. No one, however, can answer why bears “attack” any more than they can answer why humans attack other humans. Bears can attack for any number of reasons simply because they are wild and unpredictable creatures.
A bear's natural reaction is to avoid humans. Not every habituated bear attacks humans but there have been instances of attacks on humans by bears that were regarded as a habituated or “nuisance” bears. However, it is a fact that a fed bear quickly learns that humans are a food source. Anytime bears are around humans, it increases the chance that there will be conflict between them. Aside from the harm it causes to the bear, people are foolish if they think feeding bears isn’t putting themselves at risk of serious harm.
Although extremely rare, a predatory bear may attack smaller, slow moving animals, including small children believing them to be a source of food. For that reason, it is vital that parents who take young children into the forest stay close to them and watch them at all times.
In one incident a few years ago, a bear attacked an adult who was camping in a tent because the man had fried chicken over a campfire earlier that day and the bear could smell the food source on the man.
In another incident, from several years ago, a bear “attacked” a man after the man’s companions had robbed him and left him for dead. The bear apparently saw the vulnerable human as a food source. (The companions were convicted of first degree murder, despite their argument that the bear was the actual killer.)
No one really knows exactly why bears attack humans. We cannot guarantee it won’t happen but if you enjoy being in the forest, you can take some common sense steps to minimize the risk: (a) Don’t travel alone. (b) Always store food properly, (c) use bear proof containers if available. (d) If you cook in the forest, wash up afterwards with unscented soap or sanitizer. (e) When hiking, talk and make noise. (f) Keep children nearby at all times.
10. Where can I go to see (photograph) a black bear?
In East Tennessee, the most reliable place to see a black bear is to visit the Knoxville Zoo. Their bear habitat, Black Bear Falls, is a first rate natural setting. If you are in North Carolina, you may also want to vist Mimi in her new home.
Most people are surprised at how difficult it is to get a good photograph of a bear or wild animal. Good wildlife photographers know the secret to a good photograph is to be quiet and patient and let the bear come within your photographic range. A long telephoto lens is a must. Never chase after any animal in the wild.
On the belief that, if you are reading this, you care enough about bears that you won’t chase them or create bear jams, we can pass on when and where you might be able to see and/or photograph wild black bears in the Smokies:
Bears are most easily seen when they are foraging for food. If you are in Cades Cove in August, expect to see bears hanging around the cherry trees. In July and August, look for bears hunting for blackberries, especially around Hyatt Lane.
Bears like "hard mast" (acorn) producing trees, especially white oak trees. Cades Cove is one of the better spots because of its open areas but any area in the Park that has a grove of white oak trees loaded with acorns is a possible place to see wild bears in the fall.
In the springtime one of the primary foods available is squaw root. Bears will focus on the plant until berries start ripening in July at the lower elevations.
Wherever you are, if you travel into a forest, it is vital, for your safety, your family's safety and for the bear's survival that you use good bear sense. Practice bear safety whenever you are in any forest. Remember, if you are in a national park you violate federal law by "feeding, touching, teasing, frightening, or intentional[ly] disturbing” any wildlife activity or habitat, including bears." [36 C.F.R. § 2.2].
11. How can I best photograph a bear next to the road?
Most people only see bears in a zoo or from their car. If you see a bear from your car, there are several important things to remember.
First, keep your eyes on the road to make sure you don't have an accident, either with the bear or with another driver. Not surprisingly, when people see a bear they act and drive unpredictably. When a bear is sighted some people drive as if they are in a movie chase scene. You also have to watch for people who jump out of their car and run into traffic so they can get a "closeup" of the bear.
These "bear jams," not only increase the risk of a car accident they also cause needless risk of harm and stress to the very object of their enjoyment, the bear. If a bear is within sight of a road, odds are it is because the bear is feeding. The forest, after all, is the bears home.
ABOVE ALL, DO NOT GET OUT OF YOUR CAR. Imagine how you would feel if you were having dinner on your back porch when all of a sudden, a family drives into your yard, jumps out of their car, gets their cameras out of their trunk and starts taking pictures of you and your family. Even worse, imagine further that you, annoyed with the rude behavior, decide to take your dinner inside your house only to be followed by the "paparazzi" family wanting a "close-up."
Getting out of your car is not only foolish, it is risky, especially if cubs are present. Although a bear will usually retreat, if threatened and cornered a bear will defend itself. Although extremely rare, attacks on humans have occurred, inflicting serious injuries and death.
If you see a bear, do remain watchful. Do not approach it. If your presence causes the bear to change its behavior (stops feeding, changes its travel direction, watches you and so forth) - then you are too close.
People who chase bears through the woods simply to get a photograph not only violate state and federal law, they risk their own lives, the lives of everyone around them, the bear's life and, if there are cubs around, they risk orphaning the cubs by running the mother off. Even if that doesn't convince you, the chances are remote that you'll get a decent picture of a bear. If you are "lucky", the best picture you'll get is of a black dot retreating off into the woods.
If you stop, pull off to the side of the road, stay in your car, turn off the engine and be as quiet as possible so you can enjoy the surroundings and avoid disturbing the bear. Use a long telephoto lens (braced against the window or door frame) and be patient.
12. Where can I get a copy of the Bear Safe Brochure?
Download your own copy of Bear Safety Guide: Smoky Mountains (pdf)
[You will need Adobe Acrobat Reader to open this file. You can download it for free here.]