A black bear that suffered through three weeks of anguish with a plastic container stuck over its head is now safe and sound due to the persistence of a well-trained wildlife officer, according to the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA).
TWRA wildlife officer Shelley Hammonds got the first call about the bear on June 28th from an employee of Newport Utilities, who spotted the bear near the water plant on Cedar St. Pictures and witnesses concluded that the bear had gotten a clear plastic food container stuck over its head while foraging through a garbage dump.
Officer Hammonds responded the next day but could not find the handicapped bear.
The bear wasn't seen again until the July 4th holiday.
Hammonds responded along with wildlife officers Scott Hollenbeck, David Sexton, and Curt Henderson, who were in route to assist with a tranquilizer gun. Before the gun could arrive, the bear left the area and officers couldn't couldn't find it.
A similar trend of near-captures continued over the next week-and-a-half leaving officers with only handfuls of bear hair as it repeatedly eluded their grasps. On one occasion, Hammonds even got a shot at the bear but the tranguilizer dart missed its mark. She feared the bear was going to suffer a slow and agonizing death.
Several days later new sightings of the bear came in around the lower English Creek area near Cosby. Over 50 calls poured in through the Cocke County 911 Center, the TWRA office, and to wildlife officers. Once again however, the bear remained just out of the wildlife officers reach.
On July 16th, Hammonds got a call that the bear had moved over to the Carson Springs area. This meant that it must have traveled over a very steep part of English Mountain or went completely around it.
Hammonds said, “I was utterly amazed that it had crossed the mountain and was still alive. Its will to live gave me a lot of encouragement and made me determined to help save it.”
The next day Hammonds went up on English Mountain with hopes of crossing paths with the black bear that just wouldn’t give up the fight to survive. It was at this point that she received reports that the bear had been sighted across Interstate-40 near the La Carreta Restaurant in Newport. As Hammonds drove over to the area and down Sequoyah Rd., the bear crossed in front of her vehicle. She was able to get stopped and make a successful shot with a tranquilizer dart.
The bear eventually laid down in the parking lot of the C&C Pawn Shop where dozens of onlookers watched as Hammonds rendered aid. Hammonds is also a Registered Nurse, an EMT IV, and enrolled in Paramedic school.
She was concerned the bear in an ultra-stressed condition might succumb to the tranquilizing drugs. She and another nurse on the scene successfully administered intravenous fluids into the bears left jugular vein.
She described the adult male bear in “emaciated condition” and estimated its weight at about one-hundred and fifteen pounds, when it should have weighed around two-hundred pounds.
Hammonds said, “On every level he was in a deficit. For three weeks he had not eaten, had been breathing his own breath, and the only way he must have been able to drink was by lowering his head under water and filling up the jug.”
Amazingly, the bear made a full recovery and was released into the Cherokee National Forest far away from any garbage containers.
Hammonds is grateful to the host of citizens that assisted in the removal of the container and kept the bear cool and comfortable during the rescue and to Cocke County Baptist Hospital for providing medical supplies.
District 42 Captain Tim Sain, and wildlife officers James McAfee and Marvin Reeves also assisted in the overall effort while the Newport Police Department provided security at the scene.
TWRA spokesperson Allen Ricks said, "It is not just garbage and litter that kills bears, but the habits of the landowners. Pet-food and garbage must be contained indoors and birds do not need feeders during the summer months when other foods are available in their natural environments."
Additionally, the drop in last season’s bear harvest means that there is a surplus of bears that will continue to move into areas where they are not normally seen. Tennessee residents must be prepared for increased bear-sightings, learn to coexist with them, and not enable them to become habituated to human actions.
Residents are also encouraged to recycle these types of containers and to cut them into small pieces to help prevent a similar situation in the future.