One of my favorite things about my annual fall trips to Tennessee is photographing black bears in Great Smoky Mountain National Park. Sometimes I spot them at an easily photographed distance, sometimes further off. I’ve photographed them in forests, running across fields and hanging out on tree limbs. This was the first time I photographed momma bears breaking open black walnuts for their cubs.
The cubs weren’t quite strong enough to break open the walnuts, so mom would crunch them open and the cubs would eat the nuts that fell to the ground. Or, when they were feeling less patient, before they fell to the ground.
There were two park rangers near by, making sure to direct anyone who came along to a safe distance for the safety of both the bears and the people. Every once in a while someone would get a little too eager and loud and the bears would notice, but the rangers did a wonderful job of keeping people quiet and at a respectful distance.
That experience alone would’ve been enough to make any Smoky Mountains visit memorable, but several miles away I was able to photograph another momma and her cub. This time, things were a little harrier and I experienced one of the things I least like about my visits to the park- people behaving badly.
Momma and her cub were in the woods on one side of the road, where several cars full of people had pulled over to see and photograph. While it was clear that Momma was trying to make her way to the road and across, some of these people, selfishly and without regard for themselves or the bear, continuously cut off the bear’s route so that they could better photograph her for their vacation photos. They invaded her space so badly at one point, laughing and yelling loudly all the while, that momma charged at them, trying to run them off. The group of foolish people scattered and jumped into their car, still laughing and shrieking with glee, with absolutely no thought for the discomfort they were causing the bears or the possible danger they had put themselves in. And let me please remind my readers— if that bear HAD injured any of those people, chances are the bear would have been put down as well. Her cub, who was still quite young…well, I don’t know what would have become of it. Being foolish around wild animals isn’t just about putting oneself at risk!
To make matters even MORE detestable, the car full of laughing, shrieking and stupid people, then proceeded to honk their horn at the bear before heading on down the road. Just…shameful behavior in a national park, where they were visiting the bear’s home. Its an ugly behavior and, sadly, not the only such behavior I saw.
After that car had moved out of the way, those people still in the area were considerate enough to move away so the bear would feel comfortable crossing the road to where a large black walnut tree stood. She called for her cub, crossed the road and began foraging for black walnuts. Both the bear and her cub were obviously anxious.
This cub, nervous after all the aggravation, seemed too nervous to eat, and soon scampered up the tree to watch from a more comfortable distance.
Soon other people arrived and while I and a few other people stayed a safe distance away from the bear, across the road and ready to move off should she appear threatened— some new people were not as…intelligent.
I tried to inform one woman, who had walked up to the small fence that the bear had just crossed to get to the walnut tree across the road, that the bear had just been charging people and was perhaps not as relaxed as she appeared. The woman just sneered, turned her back and continued photographing with her little camera. When she finally left, it was with one final ‘look’ thrown towards the group of smart people on my side of the road.
It took some time, but eventually a ranger showed up and I was relieved to see her. I had been growing increasingly concerned that there would be an injury.
There was a recent event in Cataloochi (another area within the National Park) where an elk, who had become too comfortable with people, misbehaved. He approached a photographer and proceeded to gently ‘spar’ with him. People photographed and took video and it was a bit before anyone approached to help the photographer out of the situation. News stations picked up the story and made it sound sweet (“Cataloochee Elk Snuggles With Photographer”) or funny. In actuality, the photographer was fortunate to escape without injury and the elk was later euthanized for fear that it might injure someone in the future. Park officials made it clear that the elk had exhibited behavior previously indicating that he was far too comfortable with people. The reason? People feeding the elk and not keeping a healthy distance.
And don’t think this was a hasty or first choice solution for the park. The park has made it clear with signs and pamphlets and directions from rangers what behavior is acceptable around the wildlife and what isn’t. After several elk became food-conditioned because some people chose to ignore all they’d been told, the park tried to recondition the elk to be more wary of humans by ‘hazing’ them. This particular elk was also darted and relocated, but came back to the area.
I hope that someday everyone will respect these animals and help conserve both their habitat AND their wild natures.