Black Bear Falls at Knoxville Zoo

In our pursuit of the Black Bears of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains, we decided to take an interesting little side trip. Mrs. Highlander and I headed for the Knoxville Zoo to see how the other half (rather part) of the bear world lived. The Tennessee entrance to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park is just southeast of Knoxville and the Knoxville Zoo, which is about an hour away with good traffic flow. It was mid-afternoon when we arrived and the warm sun was glaring overhead that autumn day. Warm autumn days are common here in the mid southeast. After paying a modest entrance fee we enter the zoo and were immediately taken by the quality of the facility.

Right beyond the entrance was the Appalachian Black Bear exhibit, beautifully constructed in every detail. The exhibit was designed to hold 4 to 5 Black Bears and to simulate the bear's natural habitat in the nearby Smoky Mountains. This wonderful exhibit was first opened in September 2000 and made possible by the generosity of the Lucille S. Thompson Family Foundation.

Black Bear Falls, as the bear's habitat enclosure is officially titled, is a multi-level exhibit covering 3/4 of an acre and exposed to the open air with four tumbling waterfalls (each waterfall has more than a 20-foot drop), a flowing stream, three pools (one pool has a glass front so you can watch the bears swim) along with three viewing areas to watch the big black fur balls do their thing, which isn't a whole lot when the weather is still warm. During the mid-day heat they like to relax and nap in the shade.

The Black Bear Falls exhibit also has natural looking trees, boulder size rocks and cave openings along the wall, the caves lead to the bear's inner dens. One of the exhibit's most outstanding features is a 40-foot long, ground level tunnel that leads right into the heart of the exhibit. What is so cool about this tunnel is that the exterior cover of the tunnel looks like a giant fallen tree trunk lying on its side, with some limbs sticking out creating view ports, there is a six to seven foot clearance inside the simulated hollow tree making viewing comfortable. You can access the tree tunnel through an artificial cave entrance, it's dark and cool inside the tunnel, the only light in the tunnel is natural, coming from the entrance and portals along the inside and far end of the tunnel. The side view portals in the tunnel are extensions created by the artificial tree limbs projecting out into the bear exhibits. You can see through, or easily crawl into these side artificial limbs to observe the bears up close; kids will love this feature. One portal at the opposite end of the 40-foot tunnel is a large round viewing window approximately 6 1/2 to 7 feet tall and across. The bears walk in front of the glass and often lean against the glass, you can't get any closer than that.

One portal in the tunnel peers into a dimly lit small-simulated one-bear den where the bears occasionally escape during the day for privacy and cooler temperatures. Black Bears are known to be solitary creatures; the den provides a comfortable retreat.

Even though Mrs. Highlander and I were excited about our visit, the bears were quite sluggish due to the mid-day warmth, just imagine what a bear skin overcoat would feel like if you were wearing one on a warm day, a nap wouldn't begin to help you feel relief.

We met with the zoo director to inquire when would be the best time to see the bears being more active. He told us the Black Bears were more active early in the morning or later in the day. If we come back early, when the zoo first opens up, the milder temperature and breakfast make them more active. We left our informative zoo host and headed back over the Great Smoky Mountains to the Highlander studio, which is about 3 hours away.

As a side note, Black Bears, in the warmer southeastern United States don't hibernate; they just sleep longer periods and are still active at the zoo even during the mild winter months. Come to think of it, they sleep a lot when it's hot and when it's cold. There could be a pattern or statement going on here.

A few days later we arrived back at the zoo just before opening time and the director kindly welcomed us in. Just like he said, the bears were up and active that morning, doing what bears do The resident bears took the easy pickings as I worked quickly gobbling up photos as the bears gobbled up their breakfast. They eat like bears, meaning quick and with intent.

After devouring every morsel they played for a while, wrestled a little, socially interacted with one another as they talked bear, consisting of grunts, groans, huffing and playful growls. After being stuffed and tired from their play, they sought out their own personal comfortable spots and slowly drifted off into a nap. Occasionally, one at a time they would arise for a few minutes, doing what bears do before finding another shady spot for another well planned nap. Without having to forage for themselves in the wild, the bears had more time to pursue their personal interests, which seemed to be mostly napping. Rightfully so, it was mid-morning and after sleeping all night they needed their rest for their occasional public appearances, at their chosen appointed time, not much different than domestic cats and dogs. We should have it so good.

I spent hours going from one viewing post to another or lying on my stomach in one of the tunnels artificial limbs to catch a few pictures when they became suddenly active before settling down again. By lunchtime when the sun stood straight overhead, they were all fast asleep, like overgrown children in a day care center.

Taking advantage of this nap period, Mrs. Highlander and I set out to discover the rest of the Knoxville Zoo. The entire zoo is very impressive with lot of various species of wild life and is a fairly comfortable walking tour. The animal exhibits at the Knoxville zoo were very well laid out with natural and creative habitats. This zoo is ideal for folks seeking a comfortable stroll around the grounds, perfect for children, as well as the elderly and the physically challenged. Living in the mountain interior of the Blue Ridge Smoky Mountains, Mrs. Highlander and I don't often get a chance to see exotic animals including full size elephants, lions and tigers along with the bears "Oh My," (I just had to do that.)

I was especially excited to see the large elephants. Here is an interesting fact about the animals that were bigger than bears that once roamed this Blue Ridge, Smoky Mountains region. Thousands of years ago, Mammoth Elephants were believed to have lived in, or regularly migrated through these mountain interiors.

There's a replica of a Mammoth vertebra displayed at the Cherokee Museum in the Town of Cherokee, on the Qualla Boundary in North Carolina. The Mammoth elephant vertebra artifact was uncovered at the archeological site of the prehistoric mound village of Kituwah, between the towns of Cherokee and Bryson City, North Carolina. The ancient village is located along the northern banks of the Tuckasegee River between highway US 19 to the north, and US 74 to the south. The archeological site is believed to be over 10,000 years old. Cherokee oral tradition tells of great mammoth hunts by their ancient ancestor. The Cherokee people believe that this mound village site is the cradle of origins for their tribal heritage.

By observing the enormous elephants on exhibit at the Knoxville Zoo, you might be able to imagine big hairy mammoths, larger than these African elephants roaming through the high mountain valleys, lumbering over low mountain gaps while the ancient Cherokee ancestors lie in wait with crude weapons waiting to pounce on these giants. One kill could provide provisions and materials for quite a long time. After viewing the present day elephants, you can head over to the big cat cages and imagine their ancient ancestors, the saber tooth tigers pursuing the mammoth hunters for easy leftovers.

Even though Mrs. Highlander and I had planned to be attending to the bear's slow and methodical periodic movements, we took a break a couple of times that day to tour the zoo, discovering something new or different during each stroll.

Back at the Black Bear Falls exhibit the bears were up again, bored with lying around they lumbered about looking for something to do. We caught a few more photos as two of the big furry ones began a wrestling match. Challenging one another other with growls before standing on the hind legs, embracing each other with pushes and low impact swipes. Mock growling went on as they tussled back and forward for a short period of time in the heat of the day before touching paws like sparing partners and wandering off, then settling down for another well deserved nap.

To beat the warm direct rays of the sun ourselves, we hung out in the tunnel from time to time; it was cool and dark inside. Displayed inside the entrance of the tunnel cave, were exhibits with photos and information about Black Bears, some of this information we would like to share with our readers to help them understand more about the lives of wild Black Bear population in the nearby mountains.

  1. Black bears are only found in North America, and can live up to 30-years.
  2. The current populations of Black Bears throughout North America are estimated at 800,000. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park have a population of about 1,500 Black Bears at the time this story was published, yet visitor sightings of Black Bears are rare due to their natural need for seclusion.
  3. They are currently not on the endangered species yet are declining due to being hunted by poachers for their paws for use in soup and decorations. Their gall bladders are used in medicinal markets in the Far East and California and their claws are used as jewelry. Also habitual Black Bears (bears who prefer human contact because of their food resources,) live shorter lives due to improper diet plus they are more exposed to road hazards and are more easily accessible to poachers.
  4. The Great Smoky Mountains National Park encompasses the largest protected bear habitat in the Eastern United States. The park's goal is to keep the park environment and all of its inhabitants wild.
  5. A "habituated bear," (bears that have lost their fear of humans) can turn swiftly to sudden violence when its looking for a handout or claiming any food or eatable garbage, or if a mother bear fears for her cubs, "do beware of bears in the wild."

As the sun began to lower itself along the horizon and bear like dinner was soon to be on its way the Black Bears at Black Bear Falls became more active, the whole pack of bears were once again on the move.

It was fun to spend the day with the bears, observing some of their natural traits. These bears in the exhibit are no longer wild, yet due to their size, their claws, large jaws and teeth, they're still dangerous and don't know their own strength. They are fun to watch, like overgrown children sharing a well-planned playground.

As the afternoon grew later the bears began climbing over the rocks and giant tree structures, lumbered around a lot like bears do, enjoyed cooling off in the exhibit's pools, and getting soaked by the waterfalls or taking turns in the habitat's swimming tank. They play and socialize together, acting like a bunch of "big ole' bears rolling around playfully mocking one another. Motivated by the shade and lower temperatures of the late day and being more active due to the fact they knew it was getting close to dinner-time, the bears were really showing off for the viewing crowd.

When visiting the Tennessee side or even the North Carolina side of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, it is well worth the time to check out the Knoxville Zoo. This is one way to have a guaranteed bear sighting without all the great outdoor tree branches and shrubs blocking your view and completely safe compared to an encounter with a bear in the wild. The Black Bears and all the other exotic animals at their Knoxville Zoo habitat will be glad you came.

The Highlander

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