Watch: Black Bears Are Swiping at People and Stealing Food in This Tourist Town

...and no one seems to have a clue about the right way to deal with them
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Black bears getting too close to people in Tennesee.
A black bear sniffs a mother holding her child; another black bear stands behind the counter at a concession stand.

Tennessee wildlife officials have been searching for two black bears that were deemed a threat to public safety after getting too close to humans last week. Both incidents, which were caught on video, occurred just two days apart and less than a mile away from each other in the tourist hotspot of Gatlinburg. The first incident, which took place Tuesday, involved a bear that approached a woman and her daughter outside a hotel, and then briefly touched the woman before walking away. Thursday’s incident occurred inside the concession stand of a theme park, where a black bear snuck in through an employee entrance and swatted an employee while fleeing.

Although nobody was injured in either instance, officials with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency said they would try to trap and euthanize the two black bears. They said the behavior seen in the two videos is proof that the bears were fed by people at some point and had become dangerously conditioned to humans.

“We cannot relocate a bear with this type of behavior, which is the direct result of people feeding bears,” TWRA spokesperson Matt Cameron told WATE News in Knoxville over the weekend, referring to the hotel incident. “This is not normal behavior.”

Cameron has since confirmed with Outdoor Life that their trapping efforts at the hotel have been unsuccessful, and that the trap there has been removed. However, he says they caught several bears in the trap at the theme park. One of those black bears fit the description of the bear that entered the concession stand and it was euthanized by the agency.

@seriouslythoughitstrue Bear casually approaches patrons at Bearskin lodge. #bear #nature #fypage #fypシ゚viral #tik_tok #followback #viraltiktok #viral_video #tennessee ♬ original sound – Seriously Though

A video of Tuesday’s incident shows the black bear curiously approaching a woman in a bright dress. She’s standing just outside the front entrance of the Bearskin Lodge in Gatlinburg. Holding a child in both arms, the woman keeps her back to the bear as it gets up on its hind legs and starts sniffing them. The woman remains calm but flinches as the bear sniffs the young girl’s foot. The bear then grabs the woman’s dress and touches her briefly with its paw.

“You’ll be fine,” says another woman who’s standing inside the hotel and holding the door closed. “You see, if you had the food, he will take it … He’ll leave.”

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The bear does just that, turning its attention from the woman and child to a food wrapper on the ground. Crouching within inches of another person seated in a rocking chair, the bear grabs the food and skedaddles.

The second incident took place at Anakeesta, a family-themed resort and adventure park in Gatlinburg that lies less than a mile up the road from the Bearskin Lodge. A video of the encounter shows a black bear begging for food at the “Bear Can” concession stand. It appears to have snuck into the kitchen through an employee door that was left open.

“Nope, ain’t got nothing for ya buddy,” a man from the behind the camera says jokingly to the bear, which already has some food on one of its forearms. “Oh look, he’s drooling. He’s all about this gumbo.”  

No one at the concession stand seems bothered by the black bear’s behavior. Instead of trying to haze it or run it off, the onlookers recording the video just watch and laugh as the bear looks around sniffing the air. And by the time an employee walks through the back entrance of the kitchen, their concerned screams are too little too late.

The black bear seems just as surprised as the worker, who was caught unawares in the doorway with a pot full of food in her hands. The bear springs at the young lady with both of its front paws outstretched and then sprints away from the scene. The employee narrowly avoids getting mauled but drops the pot of hot food and appears to burn herself in the process. She quickly steps inside the building and closes the door. (A spokesperson for Anakeesta told WATE News that although the bear “made brief physical contact,” the employee was not seriously injured and declined medical attention.)

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Cameron says the Anakeesta incident has led to discussions around the theme park’s lack of food security. He says the owners there have already implemented new measures to keep black bears away from garbage and food storage areas. This includes electric fencing and electrified “unwelcome mats,” along with steel caging to secure concession stand doors.

Black bear sightings are very common in and around Gatlinburg. The town serves as the gateway to Great Smoky Mountains National Park, which is home to roughly 1,900 black bears (or a density of two bears per square mile), according to the National Park Service. The NPS recommends shouting, standing your ground, and acting aggressively if approached by a black bear, and to walk away from any food if the bear seems intent on getting it. If a black bear starts to attack, the NPS says to fight back with whatever object is available and to not play dead.

“Although most people understand the dangers of habituating bears to unnatural foods, others will do anything, even things that others may consider irrational, to attract or get close to them,” Cameron says. “These selfish actions almost always involve enticing the bear(s) with a food reward which is the beginning of the end for many bears.”

This article was updated on June 25 to include comments from the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency.