Black bear in mirror

Into the Wild

Viral stories like ‘Cocaine Bear’ reveal a dark side of human nature

The cocaine bear is a window into the human psyche.

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On Tuesday, it was revealed actress Elizabeth Banks will be directing an upcoming thriller about a bear. And not just any bear — a cocaine bear.

The prospect of a movie centered on bear on cocaine quickly caught people’s attention. But look beneath the headlines, and you’ll find that the hype around cocaine bear reveals far more about human nature than it does about the bear itself.

Some background — Despite the catchy name, the actual cocaine bear’s role in this made-for-Hollywood story is pretty small.

The cocaine bear in question refers to a 175-pound black bear that tragically died of a cocaine overdose in 1985. A medical examiner reportedly took a look at the bear and found the classic symptoms of a monumental cocaine overdose, such as kidney failure, brain hemorrhaging, and heart and lung failure.

Where did the bear obtain the cocaine in question? Well, that’s where the story actually gets pretty wild.

On Tuesday, the movie was announced.

Andrew Carter Thornton II was the son of a wealthy Kentucky magnate, who had earned his fortune through horse-breeding. But Thornton II pursued a more illicit path to wealth than his father and was subsequently convicted of drug smuggling.

The convicted drug smuggler had been operating a plane packed with a duffel bag that reportedly contained more than 70 pounds of cocaine totaling approximately $15 million.

Thornton II met an untimely end when he hit his head while parachuting out of the plane. Authorities recovered his body in Knoxville, Tennessee, but absent was the hefty amount of cocaine he had been carrying.

Three months later, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation reported that hunters had found a dead bear surrounded by the slashed duffel bag and 40 open plastic containers of cocaine. Though according to the autopsy report, the bear apparently didn’t consume all of the cocaine in the duffle bag, so it’s unclear what happened to the remainder of the drugs.

Since 2015, the dead bear has been immortalized in the Fun Mall in Lexington, Kentucky, and tourists flock to take selfies with the infamous mammal.

What cocaine bear tells us about humans — Between the adoring fans who make trips to the Fun Mall to see it and the Twitter users who reacted with sheer glee to the news of the impending movie makeover, there’s a lot of interest in cocaine bear.

But there’s perhaps something more meaningful baked into our pop-culture obsession with animals indulging in seemingly human vices. Other viral pop culture moments and memes operate on a similar wavelength — such as an octopus angrily punching a fish or a squirrel getting drunk off fermented pears. Meanwhile, there are plenty more animals that seemingly “self-medicate” with drug-like substances, like feline drawn to the intoxicating allure of catnip.

“When it comes to animal behavior, we expect animals to be simple automatons.”

Nathan Lents, a professor of biology at John Jay College and author of ​Not So Different: Finding Human Nature in Animals, tells Inverse that these viral “animal on drugs” or “rogue animal” moments resonate with us because they reveal animals aren’t all that different from humans.

“I think these moments resonate with us because we see that animals are not so different from us — with quirky tendencies, confusion, and behaviors that don’t make sense,” Lents says.

‘They get confused, make mistakes, are clumsy, misjudge their surroundings, etcetera, and this violates our expectations with hilarious results.”

This surprising element of animal behavior — whether it’s the clumsiness of your cat attempting to jump from a high ledge or a bear sniffing cocaine — surprises us, Lents says. We see our own human traits — and flaws — reflected back in these animals, allowing us to empathize with them.

“When it comes to animal behavior, we expect animals to be simple automatons, pursuing their few needs and pleasures,” Lents says. “The element of surprise comes when we see them doing things characteristically ‘human’ and that reveal they have strange quirks too.”

The dark side of anthropomorphism

The tendency to attribute human characteristics to animals is known as anthropomorphism. We see this tendency reflected in the way we relate to our pets, in the way we tell the stories of animated animals in movies, and in a whole host of other ways.

However, animals don’t need us to project these characteristics onto them.

What remains of the cocaine bear are in Lexington, Kentucky.

“Animals care about their kin and their friends, just like we do. They get jealous, scared, and joyous, they experience attachment, have fun, and grieve losses. Humans didn’t invent any of those emotions,” Lents says.

Theoretically, anthropomorphism could enable better conservation efforts, because we can then empathize with wild animals, which lends way to wanting to protect them — because we see ourselves in other animals.

“We tend to be struck by how similar other animals to us sometimes, but considering how young we are as a species, it might be more appropriate to think of it the other way around, we are very much like other animals,” Lents says

But in recent years, some have argued that there are dark sides of anthropomorphism — which has been exacerbated by Internet meme culture — especially since the science behind our shared relationship with many animals is still in dispute.

For example, there’s the case of “Grizzly Man” Timothy Treadwell, who spent 13 years living with grizzly bears, only to be eaten and killed by the animals he loved.

Is it always bad to anthropomorphize animals?

While most proponents of anthropomorphism wouldn’t go to the extreme of Grizzly Man, is there still some harm in attributing human traits to creatures that are ultimately wild beings?

Lents doesn’t think it’s harmful per se, but he thinks we should reframe how we approach the concept.

“Rather than ‘anthropomorphizing’ animals, we can emphasize that humans and animals have a great deal in common when it comes to our emotions,” Lents says.

John Hechtel, President of the International Association for Bear Research and Management, takes a more in-between approach, telling Inverse that anthropomorphism is neither good nor bad.

“I think there can be some situations where helping people understand animal behavior using analogies to people can be useful and I do that sometimes,” Hechtel says. “But it can also be problematic and people can mistakenly interpret what a bear is doing by projecting motivations onto bears that aren't appropriate.”

Hechtel says that as humans try to relate to animals, we need to walk a fine line between trying to interpret their behavior and admitting when we don’t fully understand what’s going on.

“I think it's important to try to know as accurately as possible what the animals are doing, and why they do things, but one must be very cautious about how you interpret their behavior, and willing to admit you don't know why.”

It’s not clear just yet how Banks will represent the cocaine bear in the movie. Will we follow the bear through its cocaine overdose, or will its tragic end merely be a blip in the bigger story of drug smuggler Thornton II?

Either way, the bear’s starring role in this Hollywood biopic provides an interesting new lens through which we can examine our own conflicted relationship to wildlife.