Homeownership can be full of surprises.
And last week, one Sevier County resident got a big surprise when he discovered a gas leak at his home, and learned that a large black bear denning in his crawl space might have been the culprit.
The gas company discovered the large black bear after arriving at the property to investigate the leak. The Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency (TWRA) was notified immediately.
Sargent David Sexton arrived on scene and observed the bear.
Sexton did not initially hear or see any indication that cubs were present, and assumed the bear to be male.
After consulting with other experts, a plan was formed to move the bear so that the gas leak could be properly addressed.
The next day, TWRA returned to the home and encouraged the bear to leave.
Once workers were able to access the crawl space, they discovered considerable damage to the ductwork and insulation – an indication that the bear was responsible for the gas leak that started this chain of events.
But it was also only after the bear fled that three tiny bear cubs were discovered at the home.
Sexton called Curator Coy Blair with the Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR), who issued an emergency call to action.
Bear cubs were transported to the vet for around the clock care
Blair and Curator Matthew Wilson arrived on the scene with a carrier, a cub cave, blankets, towels and warming disks to help keep the small cubs warm.
When they arrived, Sexton had already safely removed the cubs from under the home and was keeping them warm in a basket with towels.
They watched to see if the mother bear would attempt to return, but she did not.
Blair contacted the doctors at The University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM), and the three cubs were rushed to the hospital.
The three cubs were so young that were not even able to open their eyes. They weighed about two pounds each.
Curators watched them around the clock and fed them every three hours.
At that age, cubs can’t even eliminate waste on their own without the assistance of a curator who, using a warm wet-wipe in place of a mother’s tongue, stimulated the cubs to evacuate. (The joys of “motherhood”).
The bears were named Jasmine, Jeannie and Magic Bear.
Officials stated that a reunion would be ‘next to impossible’
While it was unsafe for the mama bear and her three cubs to remain under a house with a gas leak, officials were concerned after the extraction, that a reunion would prove to be difficult.
In fact, at the time, ABR stated that a reunion with the mother would be next to impossible.
ABR hoped that fostering the cubs to another mother bear would be the next best thing, but that also comes with its own set of difficulties.
For example, no one wants to burden a female with three extra mouths to feed if she already has cubs of her own. And if fostering opportunities did present themselves, it’s likely the cubs would have been separated.
The window for fostering is also small. The cubs would have to be fostered before the chosen bear family leaves their den in the spring.
But then, a miracle happened
In a live Facebook video, the ABR team detailed the incredible reunion with the mother bear.
“We’ve learned that as soon as we issue an unequivocal pronouncement about ursine behavior, some bear, somewhere, will prove us wrong,” ABR stated in a social media post.
“With all the humans going in and out of the crawl space, we were sure she’d never come back. But she did. And we’re happy she did. Learning never ends.”
The team carefully formed a plan to drop the bear cubs back into the area (after the gas leak was resolved), and mama bear immediately arrived and retrieved her cubs.
It’s extremely important, they said, to note how quickly the mother showed up.
She went from being in a dormant state to scooping up her cubs in the “blink of an eye”, which was a very special – and surprising – moment for everyone.
The cubs could be heard making humming and trilling sounds (which indicates nursing) after being reunited.
The bears will be able to remain in the now-repaired crawl space until spring thanks to the kindness and cooperation of the homeowner.
What you should know about denning black bears
Officials with the ABR warn that people should never approach a bear, especially in a den.
They guessed that the mother bear in this situation was a little older, and it’s very fortunate that they have been reunited.
Often, that is not the case.
“The younger the mother, the more likely that mother will desert the cubs and never come back … If no one is there [such as the ABR] to be able to deal with that, those animals could be killed by predators … or just starve to death,” says Kim Delozier, an international expert on bears and a retired supervisor and biologist with the Great Smoky Mountains National Park.
“It couldn’t have worked out any better,” Delozier said of this case.
Delozier notes if you own a home or rental property in Sevier County, make sure you secure your house in the fall to make sure animals cannot get in.
How you can help the black bears in the Smoky Mountains
If you enjoyed this story, please consider supporting the folks that support our black bears.
ABR is a rescue facility located just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Townsend, Tenn. The organization helps orphaned and injured black bears return to the wild for a second chance at life.
If you have questions, or interested in making a recurring donation, contact Appalachian Bear Rescue at (865) 738-3683.
What did you think of this story? Let us know in the comments.
Editor’s Note: Thank you to the Appalachian Bear Rescue for permission to use these photos