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Elizabeth Jensen photo
A bear cub peeks out from an enclosure at Appalachian Bear Rescue, where it will learn the skills required to live life on its own.
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Elizabeth Jensen photo
Lisa Stewart cradles a bear cub under her care at Appalachian Bear Rescue, where orphans are given a chance to grow up before being returned to the wild.
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Elizabeth Jensen photo
Labor of love
Lisa Stewart is an amazingly dedicated woman who spends her days working to care for and rehabilitating orphaned cubs found in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Orphaned bear cubs most likely would not survive on their own in the wild and so are rescued to help maintain the Smokies’ bear population.
If there’s an art to bottle feeding baby bears, Lisa Stewart would know it. Let the cubs nuzzle and suck on your arm for a couple minutes first, then slip their suckling mouths onto the bottle. The only downside is an arm covered in bear hickies.
As the curator of Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend, Tenn., Stewart single-handedly cared for a record 23 orphaned cubs and yearlings last year. At one point she had six cubs on bottles eating every three hours. By the time she finished the bottle regimen for all six bears, she had less than an hour before starting the process again.
“All you have time to do is make formula, feed and clean-up,” Stewart said.
The rest of her bear chores—daily food runs to town, dressing wounds and scooping poop—were crammed into the short break between bottle feedings. She survived for weeks on nothing more than catnaps on her sofa.
Stewart lives in a double-wide trailer just a 100-yard walk up a dirt path from the bear pens. Inside, the bookshelves are packed with bear motif knick-knacks.
Navigating the trailer can be tricky: the floor is piled with lettuce, canned nuts, dog food, and whatever else is on the bears’ menu that day, leaving only small paths to maneuver. The summer poses a unique challenge as the crates of perishables have to be stacked on top of the air conditioning vents. The bathroom is the coolest, so a lot of food ends up there, forcing Stewart to climb over and around boxes to reach the toilet.
The living quarters aren’t glamorous, but for Stewart, whose life centers around the bears, the trailer is little more than a place to do laundry, make a sandwich and lie her head for a few hours a night.
Before Appalachian Bear Rescue opened in 1996, there was nowhere to take orphaned cubs.
“You would just let nature take its course and hope they would make it,” said Kim Delozier, chief wildlife biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
In 15 years, the center has rescued 129 cubs and successfully returned them to the wild.
While Appalachian Bear Rescue sits at the doorstep of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, bears from several nearby states come here, from Virginia to Alabama. It’s the only place that offers cubs a second chance at life.
“There is not another place out there where we can take a wild animal where it will maintain wild behaviors so it can be released,” Delozier said.
Keeping the bears wild while in captivity is the crucial part. If they get used to people, they will return to nature only to take up residence at picnic areas and campgrounds, destined to beg food off people until sooner or later they meet an ill demise.
“We want them to be released as wild bears, not as bears habituated to humans,” said Kathy Sherrard, a volunteer and board member with Appalachian Bear Rescue.
So Stewart is the only person who can interact with the bears: all the feeding, all the watering, all the poop scooping is up to her. While the cubs may get used to Stewart, they remain leery of humans in general.
Cuddling with baby bear cubs is only a small part of the job. The hundreds of pounds of food consumed daily by the bears makes for a lot of waste—wheelbarrow upon wheelbarrow full—that has to be shoveled and hauled out of the pens, and pushed up hill through the woods to compost heaps.
“I don’t believe I have ever known someone who was so dedicated. She is so committed and so passionate about what she is doing and about those bears,” Sherrard said. “It is amazing.”
Of the dozens of cubs Stewart has nursed back to health, she’s only witnessed the miracle of a rehabbed bear being released into the wild once in her seven years at Appalachian Bear Rescue. Delozier begs her to tag along, but she’s too tied down to spare a half a day away.
“She feels responsible for the bears. She won’t leave them,” Delozier said.
Stewart’s husband, a jeweler in Knoxville, is her main conduit to the outside world.
When she’s not in the pens, she does paper work necessary for running the nonprofit. As for free time? Perfect for squeezing in a load of laundry, she said. She doesn’t even have a favorite TV show.
Before coming to Appalachian Bear Rescue in 2003, Stewart was a paralegal at a law firm in Louisiana. Her love for wildlife drove her to get certified as a wildlife rehabilitation specialist; caring for animals became her hobby and passion.
However, some animals couldn’t be left alone during her day job, so she brought them to work with her thanks to an understanding boss who didn’t mind squirrel cages and baby birds on heating pads crammed into Stewart’s office.
After seven intensive years caring for bear cubs—day and night, seven days week—time off, let alone a vacation, sounds foreign.
“I wouldn’t know how to deprogram at this point,” Stewart said. “The trip to the IGA every day is my vacation.”
Stewart is protective of her bears every one of which has a story, a personality, and defining characteristics.
“Just like with your children, they all have different faces,” she said.
Most are orphaned after their mother is hit by a car or killed by a hunter. Cubs live with their mother for the first year and a half of their life, but those without a mother Stewart serves an important role for as she improvises to create family units for them at the center.
The youngest cubs never had a chance to learn crucial skills of the wild from their own mother, so she pairs them with yearlings.
“They were in the wild for a year, so they at least know what they are supposed to do—they just weren’t old enough to do it well yet. But their mother taught them everything they needed to know that first year,” Stewart said.
The female yearlings willingly adopt the cubs into their circle.
“They are very compassionate. We could learn a lot from bears,” Stewart said.
Seeming to mimic bears’ ability to hunt and scavenge, Stewart knows what foods the bears need and has become an expert at bargain shopping, which is crucial given their shoestring budget. Besides, the regular forays to town are a welcome break in her day.
At the Townsend IGA, the grocers look forward to Stewart’s trips as much as she does.
“We love Lisa,” said Carol Shuler, the assistant store manager. “She is pretty much one of us.”
Since a standard shopping cart can’t begin to hold her purchases, the store reserves a large buggy in the back storeroom just for Stewart. There, she also finds five gallon buckets of grapes, lettuce, apples and other produce that’s past its prime, set aside by stockers when culling the shelves. They’ve gotten pretty good at knowing what to save.
“We know she doesn’t want watermelon, for example, because you’ll find that in picnic areas and you don’t want to get the bears liking that,” Shuler said
The store also keeps a pallet for Stewart’s bulk orders of things like cases of nuts and yogurt.
In typical Stewart fashion, her journey through the store is a do-it-yourself affair.
“We have to beg her to let us help her. She usually hauls it all out to her car herself,” Shuler said. “It is amazing the work she puts in.”
But the food journey isn’t over yet. Back at Appalachian Bear Rescue, Stewart carts one wheelbarrow load at a time down a 100-yard dirt path from her trailer to the enclosure. Given the record number of bears taken in last year, Stewart was lugging 700 pounds of a food a day down to the pens.
The cost of all that food strained the nonprofit. During the height of the influx, the center was spending more than $1,000 a week on food. The organization’s credit card got maxed out, and Stewart occasionally dipped into her own pocket to buy food, as did several board members.
“Obviously we are just struggling along to be able to feed the bears. That means all the necessary facility improvements are put on hold,” Sherrard said.
And there’s a long list. For starters, an industrial fridge would give Stewart somewhere to keep perishable produce and yogurt other than the air vents in her trailer. And if the path from the trailer to the pens was better groomed, and the center could afford a small ATV, Stewart could drive the bears food right down to the pens rather than lugging it in a wheelbarrow.
The list of supplies other than food is endless, like back-up batteries for the electric fences that keep the cubs in—and everything from other bears and raccoons out. The backup batteries cost $162 a pop.
The trailer Stewart lives in has its own issues. She and her husband can’t drink the tap water due to a problem with the filter. A second trailer that serves as an office doesn’t have a working toilet. Stewart could also use a roof over her front stoop where she takes off her rubber waders and overcoat covered in muck from the bear pens before heading inside.
But Stewart isn’t one to complain.
“Anything that would make her life easier and more comfortable, she puts at the bottom of the list. She says the bears come first,” Sherrard said.
If she does grow weary of the work, she’s never told anyone, Sherrard said. Instead, Stewart calls the job a dream come true.
“The reward is to see very depleted bears come in here and go back out strong and healthy and become the majestic icons we expect to see in the Smokies,” Stewart said.
Return to the wild
Park rangers knew something was amiss when a lone cub wandered into Deep Creek campground near Bryson City, N.C., in the Smokies in early April.
The bear was tiny—too tiny to be without her mother. The mountain winter wasn’t over, and it would be at least two more months before the forest food crop came in.
Once the bear was trapped, they realized it wasn’t a cub at all, but a severely malnourished one-year-old. She was only 15 pounds, a life-threatening weight for a bear her age.
“Would it have made it? Probably not,” said Kim Delozier, chief wildlife biologist in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
Less than four months later, however, the yearling black bear was returned to the wild weighing 75 pounds—a gain of half a pound a day. The amazing turnaround was the work of Lisa Stewart, the caretaker at Appalachian Bear Rescue in Townsend, Tenn., where orphaned bear cubs are nursed back to life.
“She really fattens up the bears,” Delozier said.
Many cubs taken in by Appalachian Bear Rescue are orphaned after their mother is killed—either shot by hunters or hit by a car—and are simply too young to make it on their own. But last year, Stewart was inundated with malnourished bears that had grown too weak to forage.
Park rangers were puzzled at first, but finally pieced together a theory. Bears live or die—literally—based on the fall acorn crop. In the fall, bears must pack on three to four pounds a day to last through the winter.
“It is phenomenal,” Delozier said of the requisite weight gain.
Oak trees rained down a bumper crop the previous fall, and the fat, well-fed females had more cubs than usual. Instead of the normal two, some mothers had three and four.
But the next fall, the tide turned. It was a bad year for acorns, and there were more mouths to feed.
“There was less food, large litters, and not enough for them to eat,” Delozier said. “The mountains can be a really tough place to make a living for wild animals.”
When food is limited and a mother is unable to care for all her cubs, she may sacrifice one.
“If it comes down to survival, and if she has three or four and one is weaker, that is the one she would abandon,” said Kathy Sherrard, an outreach volunteer with Appalachian Bear Rescue who lives in Franklin, N.C.
The real story behind the orphaned yearling black bear in Deep Creek remains a mystery, but it was clear to park rangers she needed help, especially when she didn’t run from them that day she stumbled into the campground.
She thrived at Appalachian Bear Rescue, where she gorged on a diet of nuts, apples, grapes, carrots, greens, dog food and blueberry pie filling. By the end of July, she was ready to go back home—and the timing was perfect. Nature would yield a steady menu through the fall, from blackberries and blueberries, to cherries in late August, to acorns come September.
When the big day arrived, she was knocked out with anesthesia, outfitted with ear tags and even given a tattoo inside her upper lip, making it possible to I.D. the bear if she were to be picked up by rangers again someday.
Rick Varner, a wildlife biologist aiding with the release, monitored her body temperature closely during the work-up. A slight rise under anesthesia is normal, but if it climbed by more than 3 degrees, he would douse her paws and groin area with cool water to bring her temperature back down.
At last, they loaded the sleeping bear into a metal cage and hefted it into the back of a Park Service pick-up truck. Stewart waved as they pulled out of Appalachian Bear Rescue and began the long journey back over the mountain from Townsend to the bear’s homeplace outside Bryson City.
For Varner, turning bears loose in the wild is just another day at work. He’s released 100 or more in his 22-year career as a wildlife tech. Many of the bears Varner releases are simply being moved to a new home. A bear that’s acquired a taste for handouts and garbage at a particular picnic area or campground gets a free one-way ticket to another part of the park in hopes of breaking the bad habit. Trouble bears must be moved at least 40 air miles from their capture site or they find their way back.
“They have navigational skills we’ll never understand,” Varner said.
But rehabilitated cubs go back to the very place they were found. What little time the cubs spent with their mother learning the ways of the woods will be imprinted to that place.
“They will have the best chance of survival in their home territory,” Delozier said.
Once they arrived at Deep Creek, the rangers unlocked a gate across a rustic park road and bumped along, looking for a good place to unload the cage, all the while putting distance between the bear and the populated picnic area.
The forest grew denser and tighter around the road; the branches of small saplings slapped again the truck. Satisfied, the rangers stopped the truck, lowered the tailgate and slid the heavy cage out onto the ground.
Delozier bent over and peered in at the bear. “You awake?” he asked.
The anesthesia usually wears off during the trip, but the biologists make sure the bear has its faculties before it leaves the safety of its cage to take on the wild once more.
Delozier tapped on the metal roof and blew through a peephole to rouse the bear. The cage jumped and clattered as the bear reared back. Delozier quickly straightened up and looked at Varner.
“OK, she’s ready,” he said.
As they raised the door, they weren’t sure what to expect. Some bears dash out immediately. Others take their time.
“She’s been in captivity for several months. That first step to freedom is alien to them,” Varner said.
A little black bear nose, followed by a set of eyes and two small ears, emerged from the shadows of the cage. Then, as if hit by a lightning bolt, she darted out and scrambled up a steep bank covered in ferns and boulders laced together with twisted tree roots.
She paused part way up, turned and looked back down at the rangers below, holding them in her gaze one last time before clambering away. The rangers kept watching long after she’d vanished, straining to catch one last look at the black fur as the woods closed in around her.
A mother bear’s finely honed biological clock
Bears have to pack on serious pounds in the fall—three to four pounds a day, or about 25,000 calories—in order to make it through hibernation. It’s especially critical for the females. They give birth while hibernating and sustain their cubs in their den until spring arrives.
Baby cubs are born in January weighing less than a pound. Essentially born premature, the cubs latch on to their mothers and nurse around the clock for the rest of winter. The mother converts her vast fat stores to milk, producing up to 50 pounds of milk despite taking in no food or calories herself. Cubs weigh eight pounds by the time they emerge from the den in April.
A mother bear calibrates the number of cubs she has based on how well she can nourish them. While bears mate in June, development of the embryo is delayed until fall. A bundle of fertilized eggs literally sits in the mother’s uterus, waiting to see how much weight she’ll gain during the pre-hibernation feeding frenzy. When—and if—she hits the target weight gain, the bundle of eggs pops open and implants in the uterus.
Bear rescue mission: the Little River cubs
When a mother bear was hit by a car last fall near Little River in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, the outlook for her three orphaned cubs wasn’t good.
As the mother dragged herself from the roadside, the cubs dutifully followed. But she soon collapsed. They climbed on top of her still warm but lifeless body and sat there, helpless and bewildered.
Unless park rangers could catch the cubs, they would die of starvation once winter set in. They hadn’t yet learned the ways of the wild.
Cubs stay with their mother for a year and a half before striking out on their own. They’re born in the dead of winter during hibernation and remain sequestered in their mother’s den, nursing for sustenance until spring arrives.
Then, under their mother’s tutelage, they learn to forage for nuts and berries, dig for grubs, scout for water and maneuver through a vast and daunting wilderness.
But the most critical lesson comes the following winter, when the mother teaches the cubs to fatten up and find a den before the cold sets in. The mother will skip a year between litters so she can care for her yearlings through one more winter.
The three orphaned cubs at Little River would not only lack the instincts to den up, but wouldn’t put on the requisite weight to sustain themselves through a months-long hibernation.
So Rick Varner, a wildlife technician in the Smokies, made it his mission to catch the cubs—a cat and mouse game that ultimately played out over three long days.
One cub was captured easily, as it was too weak and underweight to muster the effort to run. The other two bolted away every time he approached, but he knew they wouldn’t go far.
“They’ll keep coming back to mom because they don’t know anything else,” Varner said. Before nightfall the first day, Varner set up two traps near the mother’s body, baited them, and hid in the woods. Varner soon heard the cubs coming, followed by a knocking of metal and eventually the trap doors falling. When he came out to check, however, he realized the cubs hadn’t gone in, but had merely climbed around on top of the traps, enough to trigger them and fool Varner.
The next night, Varner returned with a giant wild boar trap. He smeared the mother bear’s fur with blueberry yogurt and muscled her body into the trap. He settled in behind a nearby tree holding a string rigged to the trap door. The trap can be set to trip automatically, but Varner hoped to catch both cubs and didn’t want the door to fall until both were inside.
He didn’t have to wait long before a cub showed up and climbed right in. Unfortunately, the other one never appeared.
Varner knew he was running out of time. The third cub would eventually move on. It was now day three and the mother’s body, crawling with maggots, had “ceased to be a draw,” he said. All he could do was set the hog trap again and hope the cub took the bait this time. It did.
All the three cubs were taken in by Appalachian Bear Rescue and were cared for until they were big enough to return to the wild.
There are an estimated 1,600 bears in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park—a huge increase over the 400 bears in the park in the 1970s. The few cubs saved by Appalachian Bear Rescue won’t make or break the population. Besides, there are likely many more cubs in the same predicament that aren’t lucky enough to be found.
But ones you do know about are hard to turn your head on, said Kim Delozier, the Smokies chief wildlife biologist.
“Can you catch every single bear that is in trouble?” Delozier asked. “Will we save the population if we save these three or four bears? No. But where we have the knowledge, the expertise and ability to help certain animals in certain situations, I think we have the responsibility to do so. If we can rehab a bear and keep it wild and release it back out there, I think it is our responsibility.”
National Parks usually let nature take its course. By definition, the parks are places where nature exists on nature’s terms and intervention is frowned upon. But Delozier points out most orphaned cubs lost their mother because of man—either a hunter or car—so it’s not really intervening but rather righting a wrong.
Delozier recalled the great debate that ensued over whether to save Chester, a yearling bear with a limp so severe it could hardly walk. Anguished by the sight of the cub dragging his injured leg on the lawn of the heavily trafficked Sugarlands Visitor Center outside Gatlinburg, tourists demanded rangers do something.
Rangers contemplated whether the bear had been hit by a car or had been nipped by its mother when being weaned from nursing—a tough love message some mothers resort to with particularly persistent cubs. The latter would make intervention harder to justify.
Both sides agreed if they did nothing, however, the limping bear in such a populated area would soon resort to begging for food and robbing trashcans. So they gave in and took Chester to Appalachian Bear Rescue.
During an interview in his office, Delozier’s park radio went off. A bear had been hit by a car on a busy park road and was limping away through the woods.
“Just because it is limping, we won’t pick it up,” Delozier told the rangers on the other end of the radio. How well was it walking, Delozier asked? Did it run when the rangers got close?
“OK, that’s good news,” Delozier told them. The verdict: stand down and leave this one to nature. The park only picks up bears that are so injured or weak they have little hope of making it on their own.
“Animals have an unbelievable ability to heal and survive. You sure don’t want to intervene if the best situation is to leave them out there,” Delozier said.
Vet school lends a hand with bear care
Occasionally, an orphaned cub is too injured to survive—even in the hands of Appalachian Bear Rescue—without medical care first. Enter the Veterinarian School at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. When the UT vet school gets a call from rangers alerting them a bear is en route, they scrambled to clear their schedule in the exotic animal operating room.
“We don’t see bears every day, so when they do come in it is a lot of fun. We shuffle everything to make it happen,” said Dr. Marcy Souza, a vet and a faculty member at the school.
Under UT’s care, bears have gotten stitches, X-rays, casts—even surgery to put pins in broken joints.
Not every bear brought to the school can be saved, however. Last winter, a cub hit by a car had a wrist smashed beyond repair, a broken jaw and myriad smaller fractures, on top of being severely underweight. It would never make it in the wild again and thus had to be put down.
Bears with wounds, like a cub found in Gatlinburg with a deep gash under its arm last spring, are sent on to Appalachian Bear Rescue with special instructions, including daily doses of antibiotics and wound cleaning—even IV’s.
Sometimes, the bears need dental work, from root canals to broken teeth that must be pulled. The bear is obviously knocked out first, and the mouth propped open one way or the other.
“At the vet school there is never a shortage of students who want to work on a bear, so sometimes they act as human retractors,” Souza said.
There are only 28 vet schools in the country, making the Smokies fortunate to have one so close.
“When you see or hear that an animal that was sick and has been released back into the wild you think, ‘Oh wow, I did something great,’” Souza said.