Some of my fondest memories of visiting Grandfather Mountain were of course the bridge and the views, but most importantly – the bears. I remember being young and seeing the black bears in their natural habitat, roaming around the mountain, and us, as children, being mesmerized by this (somewhat) terrifying creature that was also absolutely adorable.
Grandfather Mountain has the 'wildlife habitats,' fun for children, adults, and anyone wanting to get up close and personal with some wildlife. Besides bears, you can also get a glimpse of otters, cougars, deer, and an eagle.
All of those animals are exciting to see, but like I said above, my fondest memories always involved seeing the black bears in person. From a distance, black bears are absolutely adorable. They're more calm and timid than their counterpart, the brown bear. But this doesn't mean if you see a black bear in the wild, it will be ok and you should pet it. No, not always, besides one very special bear that called Grandfather Mountain home. That bear is of course, Mildred.
The story begins with famous North Carolina photographer Hugh Morton. Mildred was born February 7th 1966 at the the Atlanta Zoo. Two years later, Mildred needed a wilderness home of her own. Hugh, knowing that his whole backyard was basically Grandfather Mountain, accepted Mildred to live among him. Unbeknownst to both, they would deeply affect each other's lives.
Mildred was brought to Grandfather to increase the black bear population. Her male counterpart was released and never seen again. The day Mildred arrived at Grandfather, Arthur Smith was filming his TV show at Grandfather. For one scene, they wanted a wild bear, and decided to release Mildred during the filming as the 'wild bear action shot.' The problem? When they released Mildred, she just stood there. Later, they discovered Mildred was not raised as a wild bear...she had been bottle fed and hand fed since she was a baby. She was more used to people than other bears and the wild.
Mildred's first day at Grandfather was anything but what was expected. She scared a few golfers, looked for snacks at the snack bar, and chased some dogs. This continued through the rest of her early experiences at Grandfather. It's safe to say, Mildred was always more of a human than a bear. Hugh was put in charge of Mildred, to take her out in the wild and accommodate her to this foreign environment. In typical Mildred fashion, the two went on picnics, snacking on Fig Newtons and grape soda. They took long walks in nature, and Mildred became a signature of not just Grandfather Mountain, but Hugh's life.
Celebrities came to see Mildred, people posed for pictures with her - Mildred was, simply put, a celebrity. But Mildred also had another calling, and that was to be a mother. Mildred gave birth to or adopted several cubs throughout the years, the first two being Mini and Maxi. Despite her bear stardom, her bond with Hugh was simply magical. Everyone loved Mildred and today at Grandfather, the wildlife habitat is what it is because of her. Mildred passed away in 1993 at age twenty-six, with Hugh Morton passing away the following year. Mildred is as much a legacy to Grandfather Mountain as Hugh. They both shaped the mountain in amazing ways.
Have you been to the wildlife habitat at Grandfather, or do you have any Mildred stories of your own?