This weekend, Universal premieres what may be the most ridiculous movie of the year: Cocaine Bear, a violent horror-comedy inspired by a bizarre real-life event. In 1985, a Georgia black bear died after ingesting at least three or four grams of cocaine that had been dropped from a plane by a smuggler who may have been high on cocaine himself. At the time, the event was strange enough to make national headlines; nearly 40 years later, the details remain so absurd that they will likely drive curious hordes of moviegoers to theaters.
But Hollywood is not the first party to spin fantasy fiction from the bear’s tragic fate. In 2015, Kentucky locals Whit Hiler and Griffin VanMeter installed a taxidermy bear into their Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall, a quirky brick-and-mortar tourist stop, claiming that it was in fact the real Cocaine Bear.
“We here at the Kentucky Fun Mall obtained the actual Cocaine Bear taxidermy and have put it on display for everyone to enjoy,” the Kentucky Fun Mall advertises on its website, which touts various styles of Cocaine Bear T-shirts, sweatshirts, tank tops, snow globes (listed as “blow globes”), hats, socks, beer koozies, soap, stickers, patches, Valentine’s Day cards, and postcards. (“Nothing says, ‘I’m having a noseful of fun in KY’ like a Cocaine Bear postcard,” advertises the site.)
“Before we searched for Cocaine Bear’s stuffed remains, he was a forgotten footnote in the story of the Bluegrass Conspiracy,” wrote Kentucky for Kentucky in a statement to VF timed to the release of Cocaine Bear. “In 2015 we tracked down the long-lost taxidermied bear and brought him to the KY for KY Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, to share his legend and what we learned about his post-overdose provenance. Visited [by] and bringing joy to thousands of people every month, Cocaine Bear is not just a roadside attraction—and soon-to-be biopic antihero—he’s also a city mascot, a heartwarming community builder, and a warning to all the dangers of drug abuse. We trademarked his name and likeness as part of our guardianship, popularizing him as a character. You can visit Cocaine Bear free of charge during opening hours. We hope that you do.”
This story does not align with what actually happened to the Cocaine Bear, according to Fran Wiley and Gary Garner, two retired Georgia Bureau of Investigation agents with direct knowledge of the actual 1985 case.
“Our bear was a female,” says Wiley, who was the assistant agent in charge of GBI’s drug enforcement office and tasked with the case. Additionally, “our bear did not have many claws because we took some of the claws to get the bear’s DNA so we could determine the age of the bear.”
Perhaps most saliently, “Our bear could not have been taxidermy,” she explains. “Our bear had been on the ground for about three months when we found it…so it was decomposed. In fact, the people at the crime lab were so mad that we brought this bear in because it stunk up the whole lab. They would’ve incinerated this after they did all their testing. They would not have kept this thing.”
In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, VanMeter confirmed that Kentucky for Kentucky’s Cocaine Bear claim is a tall tale. He told the outlet that the bear was actually inherited from a friend’s parents who were looking to unload their basement taxidermy. With the help of a creative friend in advertising, VanMeter said they then spun a fictional backstory about how they came to own the bear, involving at least one pop culture figure with a well-documented history with the drug.
The backstory, per the Kentucky for Kentucky website: