Late last month, when officer Shelley Hammonds of the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency received word of an animal in distress, it might have sounded like a routine rescue operation. Witnesses described seeing an adult black bear plodding around with its head stuck inside a large, plastic food container -- an unwelcome accessory likely acquired while the bear foraged in a nearby dump -- so Shelley was dispatched to free it. But catching a bear with its head in a jar soon proved to be no easy task. By the time the TWRA officer arrived to save the bear from its dire straits, it was nowhere to be found. It seemed, perhaps, that the bear was able to free itself, but that was not the case. About a week later, a slew of calls came in to report of an encased bear wandering throughout rural Cocke County, Tennessee. Again, Hammond went to track it down, only to discover the bear had slipped out of sight.
With that failed second attempt, according to The Chattanoogan, the wildlife officer's oddest animal rescue mission had only just begun, and she knew failure would cost the bear its life:
A similar trend of near-captures continued over the next week-and-a-half leaving officers with only handfuls of bear hair as it repeatedly eluded their grasps. On one occasion, Hammonds even got a shot at the bear but the tranguilizer dart missed its mark. She feared the bear was going to suffer a slow and agonizing death.
Several days later new sightings of the bear came in around the lower English Creek area near Cosby. Over 50 calls poured in through the Cocke County 911 Center, the TWRA office, and to wildlife officers. Once again however, the bear remained just out of the wildlife officer's reach.
Despite its condition, unable to eat, the black bear was clearly still on the move. Nearly three weeks after the animal had been first spotted with its head in a jar, TWRA received reports that the bear was seen in another part of the state -- accessible only through difficult terrain; it had managed to cross a mountain.
That's when Hammond had a lucky break:
The next day Hammonds went up on English Mountain with hopes of crossing paths with the black bear that just wouldn't give up the fight to survive. It was at this point that she received reports that the bear had been sighted across Interstate-40 near the La Carreta Restaurant in Newport. As Hammonds drove over to the area and down Sequoyah Rd., the bear crossed in front of her vehicle. She was able to get stopped and make a successful shot with a tranquilizer dart.
"On every level he was in a deficit. For three weeks he had not eaten, had been breathing his own breath, and the only way he must have been able to drink was by lowering his head under water and filling up the jug," says Hammond.
The Chattanoogan reports that, once freed, the bear made a full and speedy recovery, and was then released into Cherokee National Forest "far away from any garbage containers."
Wildlife officials urge residents to cut food containers before discarding them to order to avoid situations in which scavenging animals become trapped in our trash, though it's obvious that not everyone has gotten the message. Thankfully, there are folks like Shelley Hammond who demonstrate such a profound commitment to helping creatures in need.
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