The Real History of Cocaine Bear: A True Story of Drugs, Wildlife, and… Taxidermy?

Cocaine Bear the Movie might be a horror-comedy, but we dare you to laugh at the true story of tragedy and nose candy that is... the real-life Cocaine Bear.

Cocaine Bear climbs a tree
Photo: Universal Pictures

This has absolutely NO SPOILERS for the movie Cocaine Bear

The year is 1985. The sappy but well-intentioned charity ballad “We Are The World” is inescapable. Pastels and Patrick Nagel art prints are in fashion. And Miami Vice, the stylish cop show where Don Johnson gets suave while busting drug dealers, is the biggest thing on television. These are the golden years of cocaine, where every investment banker and rich kid is lit to the gills on Colombian blow. Bringing the in-demand drug into the United States is a high-risk/high-reward career move, and once you’re in the game, then primarily controlled by Pablo Escobar and his Medellin Cartel, it’s hard to get out.

Ironically, one of the easiest ways to get into moving bricks is to be a former cop. Ex-DEA agent turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton is where the story of the real-life Cocaine Bear begins, though the saga of the bear also requires Thornton’s end. On the night of Sept. 11, 1985, Thornton, a central figure in a previous marijuana smuggling ring, and an associate have put their Cessna on autopilot. They dump bricks of cocaine into the Georgian woods and parachute out over Tennessee. The reasons are unclear, although the FBI later speculated the plane was overloaded. 

Whatever the pair of smugglers intended, it didn’t do them much good. The Cessna crashes into a North Carolina mountain after another hour in the air, and Thornton dies seconds after he jumps when his parachute fails to open. His parachute-entangled corpse lands in a residential area. With him is 75 pounds of additional happy dust, a handful of gold Krugerrand coins, a moderate personal armory that included a pair of handguns, and the setup for a hell of a later discovery.

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From here, the story of the Cocaine Bear’s final days is known only to squirrels, river otters, and possibly Bigfoot. Humans don’t re-enter the picture until December when the body of a black bear is discovered by Georgian federal officials attempting to reconstruct the path of Thornton’s last drug run. With the dead bear is a lot of cocaine. Like, a three-part Very Special Episode of Miami Vice amount: nearly 90 lbs of white powder, at a street value of $20 million. What wasn’t present at the scene were any human victims. Sorry, movie fans. The only living thing the Cocaine Bear took out in his drug-fueled frenzy was himself.

The adult bear’s age isn’t certain, though at 175 pounds, he was either still pretty young, coping with a lean season, or he had discovered the weight suppressant ability of all that nose candy he’d been chomping down. The feds sent the bear to a medical examiner as part of their criminal investigation. The examiner’s findings were… definitely something. For animal lovers, this is where the truth gets grim.

According to the Cocaine Bear’s official merch website, the poor creature’s stomach was packed full of cocaine when he died. The medical examiner went on to claim that just about every horrorshow outcome of a drug overdose had occurred, quote, “Cerebral hemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it.”

Though it sounds more like the soon-to-be-legendary bear was Keith Richards’ personal portrait in the attic, it gets far worse for the big fella than the upcoming movie posits. The medical examiner, impressed with the bear’s external condition, packed him off to a taxidermist friend. The resultant stuffed bear was then put on display at the Chattanooga River National Recreation Area, without its infamy spelled out for visitors. It eventually got lost in a storage room shuffle during the early ‘90s, after which some artifacts ended up in a local pawn shop. Including the bear.

The Cocaine Bear’s next leg of his journey involves country music legend Waylon Jennings, and if he doesn’t have a tune on the movie soundtrack, director Elizabeth Banks missed a trick. Jennings liked collecting Americana curios, and, allegedly, he was friends with a former Thornton associate and Vegas gadfly named Ron Thompson. The bear, now one of history’s weirdest white elephant gifts, stayed in Thompson’s mansion until an estate sale in 2009 landed our protagonist in a Chinese medicine shop, where it would grimace mildly at tourists looking for ginseng and acupuncture treatments.

There the Cocaine Bear would stay, until Kentucky’s premiere tchotchkes outlet, KY for KY, got their hands on the taxidermy bear and put it on display at their Fun Mall, festooned with a varying amount of humiliating frat boy accessories, the nickname Pablo Escobear, and a placard that urges visitors to not do drugs. At least, not to the extent of Cocaine Bear’s final hours. His stomach distended with blow, his fading eyes probably seeing something beyond the reckoning of mortal creatures, the Cocaine Bear’s true story is not the one you’ll see in theaters this year. But it’s still one that deserves to be told.

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