Three Bears General Store - Live Bears
Pigeon Forge, Tennessee
When the Three Bears Gift Shop was gutted by a fire in September 2008, some people hoped it was gone for good. That's because it took its name from its three live bears, exhibited in a pit behind the shop.
The hopes of the good-riddance faction were dashed when the gift shop reopened in 2009 as Three Bears General Store, four times its original size. It is now the largest gift shop on the Parkway in Pigeon Forge, one of America's most mind-boggling strips of gift store excess. With an aqua massage bed parlor, an Olde Tyme photo studio (with 11 prop-filled period scenes), and shelf after shelf of gut-burning hot sauces, Three Bears has become far more than t-shirts, flip-flops, and fudge. Fake bears stand in an alcove above the door, beneath a banner that reads, "Jesus Saves."
Three Bears not only expanded its stock, it also improved its bear home -- "pit" seems less appropriate now -- whose inhabitants have increased to five (Mama, Papa, Smokey, Mandy, Katey). Oddly, they are Asian black bears, whose native turf is halfway around the world, not Great Smoky Mountains black bears from the National Park up the street. The story conveyed to us, years ago, was that the original Three Bears were rescued from a bankrupt zoo in Indiana that had planned to sell them to a hunter as live game.
The Three Bears pit could easily be mistaken for a zoo "habitat," complete with waterfalls, multiple privacy dens, and a viewing and snack-hurling platform for humans inside a bear-proof steel cage. The gift shop, we were told by upper management, meets all state and federal requirements for keeping bears, which, we were also told, have lived far longer than similar bears in the wild. The bears are only fed three times a day (to keep off the fat) and the treats that you purchase at the cash register are no longer pink sugar cookies, but healthy apples and grapes.
But as in the old days, tourists still yell, "Hey, BEAR!" to get their attention, and the bears obligingly sit up and snag the aerial snacks on the fly.