Part fiction, part truth: This bizarre real-life story inspired black comedy thriller Cocaine Bear

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  • In Elizabeth Banks' latest directorial feature, Cocaine Bear, a black bear ingests a large amount of cocaine and goes on a drug-fuelled rampage.
  • Actual events inspired the film; a 79-kilogram black bear was found in a forest, dead after eating 40 kilograms of cocaine.
  • The bear, which has been stuffed and dubbed Pablo Escobear, is on display at a souvenir shop in Kentucky, USA. 

The film Cocaine Bear, which releases in SA cinemas on 24 February 2023, centres on a black bear who goes violently berserk after ingesting large quantities of the white narcotic. It is directed by actor and filmmaker Elizabeth Banks and notably stars the late Ray Liotta.

The trailer for the film, which was released on 30 November, promises action and humour. And this bizarre tale happens to be inspired by actual events.

The real Cocaine Bear

The real Cocaine Bear, who died in 1985, ingested $15 million worth of cocaine that crash-landed in Georgia, USA, according to Independent UK. The cocaine came in a duffle bag that was dropped from an aeroplane by former narcotics officer turned drug smuggler Andrew Thornton, according to a New York Times article published in 1985. During a drug run, Thornton had thrown the duffle bag from his aeroplane into the Georgia area. Thornton later died during an aeroplane trip due to a parachuting accident on 11 September 1985, where his body was found in a Tennessee resident's driveway. This is according to Kentucky for Kentucky (Ky for Ky), a souvenir shop that currently houses Cocaine Bear's taxidermised body.

Three months after Thornton's death, a 79-kilogram black bear was found in a Georgia forest, dead after eating 40 kilograms of cocaine. The remains of 40 cocaine packages were found near him, all ripped open. Since the bear was part of a crime scene, a medical examiner had to be brought in to perform an autopsy.

"Its stomach was literally packed to the brim with cocaine. There isn't a mammal on the planet that could survive that. Cerebral haemorrhaging, respiratory failure, hyperthermia, renal failure, heart failure, stroke. You name it, that bear had it," said the medical examiner, speaking about the bear's necropsy.

However, the bear's corpse was still in good condition, so the examiner had the bear taxidermised and sent to a Georgia recreation area. There it was put on display, with a plaque explaining its history, says the Ky for Ky website.

Cocaine Bear poster.
Cocaine Bear poster.

Pablo Escobear

During the 1990s, the bear was stored away, stolen and wound up in a pawn shop. The bear was sold to award-winning singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings, who then gifted it to a friend. The famous country artist was unaware that the bear was stolen but knew of its cocaine backstory. After the last owner of the bear died in 2009, most of his property was auctioned off, including the stuffed bear.

The bear was sold to a Chinese immigrant who owned a healing shop in Reno, Nevada. Ky for Ky contacted the widow of the Chinese immigrant in search of the bear. The widow was oblivious to the bear's bizarre backstory but handed the stuffed animal to the souvenir shop. The bear is still displayed at the souvenir shop, where it has been dubbed Pablo Escobear and outfitted with a park ranger hat and gold chain.

Cocaine Bear's home

The hype around the Cocaine Bear film has increased interest in Ky for Ky's display of the infamous bear's stuffed body, according to Sarah Wylie Van Meter from Ky for Ky. "Foot traffic has definitely increased. We're seeing more young folks, and actually more people locally who didn't even know Cocaine Bear was in their own state," Van Meter tells News24.

Ky for Ky was on track to launch a Cocaine Bear animated series before Universal Pictures announced a film, says Van Meter. However, their project folded when Universal Pictures "stepped into the ring," she says.

"Universal saw that Kentucky for Kentucky had the trademark on the name Cocaine Bear, so they reached out to us, and we signed an agreement for them to use the title for their film," she said. Ky for Ky is really looking forward to the release of the film, adds Van Meter.

We live in a world where facts and fiction get blurred
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