The Cocaine Bear: What really happened in 1985

At least one part of the movie, Cocaine Bear, is actually based on facts. A black bear did die in the Georgia woods of a cocaine overdose in the fall of 1985. In the movie, the bear goes on a cocaine-induced rampage and attacks and kills eight people. In real life, the cocaine the bear ingested killed it in about 45 minutes.

So what really happened?

It was late fall in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest in Georgia near the state’s border with Tennessee when the hapless bear stumbled across three duffel bags full of cocaine jettisoned from an overloaded plane by drug smuggler and former Kentucky narcotics officer Andrew Carter Thornton II.

The three-or four-year-old 175-pound male bear was most likely searching diligently for food before finally turning in for the winter.

Why would a bear think 75 pounds of cocaine was food? Because cocaine is often cut with flour or baking soda and, like antifreeze, smells enticingly sweet to the super-powerful nose of a bear.

The body of the drug smuggler was found September 11, 1985, in a driveway in Knoxville, Tennessee, shortly after he parachuted out of his overloaded Cessna. Investigators speculate that he either opened his parachute too late or the extra weight of the duffel bag of cocaine he was carrying was too much for the parachute. The free fall from thousands of feet killed him on impact.

The body of his victim was discovered a month later when investigators hunting for the missing drugs located the empty duffel bags and about 40 strewn packets that had once contained millions of dollars’ worth of cocaine.

original cocaine bear notice

How one bear’s search for food ended in a painful death.

Georgia’s chief medical examiner at the time, Kenneth Alonso, told United Press International that the bear probably lived for 30 to 45 minutes before succumbing to acute cocaine intoxication, noting that the animal’s stomach was literally packed with cocaine. The bear had suffered cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure and stroke.

Because this movie has gotten so much attention and BearWise and our state agency bear biologists have gotten so many questions about this “blood-thirsty bear” we thought you deserved to know what really happened. And how being able to separate facts from fiction can help keep people safe and bears wild.

You can always trust BearWise. Visit our website at BearWise.org for science-based information and all sorts of free resources and materials you can use.

As of March 5, the movie grossed more than $40 million in the US and $52 million worldwide. That means more than 4 million people have seen it who deserve to know the truth. Please pass along this article and help us set the record straight.


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