Gatlinburg Guests Pet Black Bear, Flee Hotel: PHOTOS

by Jon D. B.

A fellow guest captured the photos as she attempted to get the “touron” to stop petting the black bears, but to no avail.

Downtown Gatlinburg’s Quality Inn Creekside hotel is no stranger to bears. “We typically, every week, see the same four or five bears,” says hotel owner Raj Patel. Black bears walk the grounds on a daily basis as they come down from the Great Smoky Mountains to search for food. Human food.

Which is exactly how an infuriating Sunday morning incident was caught on camera. As Misty Chrismon exited her room, she saw, then photographed, two people approaching a black bear. She watched in disbelief as a woman reached out to “pet” the bear’s muzzle. This continued for several minutes as Chrismon shouted for her to stop.

Misty Chrismon captured those photos and said that the woman actually made contact with the bear, and the bear swiped at her moments after. It was only at that time that the woman left the bear alone.

‘This is why bears get killed’

“This is why bears get killed. I can’t believe she did this. We had to tell her to stop over and over again,” Chrismon posted with the original photos. “She was petting the nose and everything, and then she put her hand out pretending she had food for the bear,” she continues for local WVLT 8.

Patel was made aware of the incident after seeing the photos online, and was understandably furious. But Chrismon had already alerted hotel staff after the incident, who spoke to the woman in question. During the encounter, she did not stop attempting to touch the bear until it swiped at her.

Unfortunately, Patel hasn’t been able to kick out the guests for their behavior. He’s still looking for them, in fact. But he did tell WVLT that he’s kicked out 10 or 15 people in the past, and will do the same in this situation.

Black Bear Habituation is Highly Dangerous for Humans and Bears

Also speaking to WVLT, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency spokesperson Matt Cameron says he’s seen the photos. To him, this scenario wreaks of habituation.

“While the folks in these photos do not appear to be feeding it, they are further endangering it by making it feel comfortable approaching people,” Cameron says. “At some point, many food-conditioned bears become aggressive and cause harm to humans.”

Since there was no feeding involved, the tourists were not doing anything illegal, he adds. If these tourists were in Great Smoky Mountains National Park, however, they would be charged with a crime. It is illegal to willfully approach any black bear within 50 yards in the national park. Any disturbance or displacement of bears in the Smokies is also illegal, at any distance.

Similar laws are needed in Gatlinburg, as the area is home to a dense population of habituated bears. Regulations are in place that prohibit the feeding (intentional or otherwise) of black bears in Sevier County, but they only apply to certain areas of the popular tourist destination.

“The regulations only apply to a 6 sq. mi. area of Gatlinburg and were intended to create a buffer zone with hopes that bears would be deterred from going further into the city if they couldn’t get into garbage,” Cameron adds. “Unfortunately, outside of the GSMNP and this buffer zone in Gatlinburg, there aren’t any prohibitions against feeding bears in Tennessee.”

Habituated bears are often euthanized, as they present a danger to people. This creates a danger for the bears themselves, one that is often fatal for the black bears – and not humans.

For more on how to prevent habituation in the Smokies area, see our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist next.