NASHVILLE — Who wants a job that keeps you on call 24/7, hasn’t allowed a vacation in more than eight years and makes you responsible for creatures who can’t tell you what they need? Lisa Stewart would have none other.
Stewart is curator of Appalachian Bear Rescue, the only place in the Southeast where orphaned black bears get a shot at survival.
“I took the job on April 1, 2003.” Stewart said. “That’s the last time I had a day off.”
Stewart was a paralegal in Mississippi when she volunteered with a wildlife rehabilitation organization, taking care of squirrels, rabbits and other small animals.
“I never dreamed I’d be a bear mama,” said Stewart, 53.
But when she moved to Tennessee, her interest followed her. When the curator job was offered at the bear center, she jumped at it.
“She’s definitely a very dedicated individual,” said David Whitehead, a Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency wildlife manager. “She doesn’t leave [the center] for very long.”
The center operates with a permit from TWRA and closely follows rules concerning wildlife. Bear cubs from other states also are brought to the center, which is in the Smoky Mountains foothills city of Townsend, after being cleared by the state wildlife agency. State wildlife officials from all over the Southeast can bring cubs for rehab, but they must come back and claim them when the animals are ready for release.
The center is having its busiest year yet, having taken in 33 cubs as of Thursday. Some had been released, but the center still was caring for 27 young bears. A poor year for berries, nuts and acorns is behind the increased need as bears range farther in search of food and more sows are killed in traffic or die of starvation or illness.
Cubs brought to the center eventually are released in the area where they were found.
Sometimes area residents spot the needy cubs without a mother nearby and call TWRA. Other times the cubs will be found when a female is hit and killed on a road.
One recently was found in Monroe County in a pear tree, Whitehead said.
Whitehead said bear sows are very protective mothers. While they might send their cubs up a tree for protection while they forage for food, wildlife officers know if the sow doesn’t eventually show up, she is no longer alive.
“She would not just abandon them,” he said.
Stewart — who has a degree in animal science from Belhaven University in Jackson, Miss. — gets food from a variety of sources. A local supermarket saves fruit that has become too ripe to sell. Schoolchildren collect acorns and nuts for the center. There also are donations and grants.
TWRA has allowed Stewart to post photos of the cubs online to help with fundraising, though no one but her is allowed to have contact with the animals. She keeps that to a minimum, throwing food over the walls of an enclosure, rather than putting it in troughs. She says that also teaches the cubs to hunt for food.
The cubs are very social with each other.
“The more the merrier,” Stewart said. “Every time new cubs come in, they’re welcomed into the colony.”
After the animals have bulked up to about 100 pounds, they are taken to near where they were found and set free. Even then, they get a buddy — they’re always released at least two at a time, Stewart said.
So what do bear cubs eat? Sometimes, they get dry dog food so they’ll understand the crunch of a good acorn later. Young ones are fed yogurt and applesauce. As they get older, treats include lettuce, grapes, apples, pears and berries.