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Cocaine Bear and his Hollywood-worthy sniffer.
Cocaine Bear and his Hollywood-worthy sniffer.

Cocaine Bear

Field review by the editors.

Lexington, Kentucky

Kentucky's blue bloods want you to associate their state with thoroughbred racehorses, or bourbon, or even Abraham Lincoln. They would rather not add Cocaine Bear to the roster of Kentucky immortals, but it's too late now. Cocaine Bear has become a Kentucky icon (and a Hollywood celebrity) thanks to Whit Hiler and Griffin VanMeter.


"Blow-globes" are among dozens of bear-themed souvenirs.

"You guys" -- meaning roadsideamerica.com -- "were Citizen Zero of Cocaine Bear," said Griffin, referring to Roadside America's early spotlight on the bear back in 2017. "We wouldn't be in this moment right now if it wasn't for you."

So how did Whit, Griffin, us, and the bear end up in such an unexpected place?

It began 1985, when Cocaine Bear was found dead in the woods after eating roughly $15 million worth of coke from a duffle bag dropped from a drug smuggler's airplane. The smuggler, Andrew Carter Thornton II, was the wealthy son of an elite Kentucky horse-breeding family. According to a display at Georgia Bureau of Investigation headquarters (which also exhibits the Monkey From Mars), Thornton fell to his death when he bailed out of the plane, "hit his head on the tail of the aircraft," and didn't open his parachute until it was too late.

Decades passed. Griffin and Whit, also sons of the Bluegrass State, made headlines in 2011 when they launched a tongue-in-cheek campaign to replace Kentucky's lame tourism slogan, Unbridled Spirit, with one of their own, Kentucky Kicks Ass. "A bureaucrat in the tourism office said, 'Those guys have a constituency of no one,'" Griffin recalled, "but those no ones bought a lot of Kentucky Kicks Ass t-shirts."

Cocaine Bear swag, visitor maps, and shrine. Offerings are left on the floor beneath the bear's feet.
Cocaine Bear swag, visitor maps, and shrine. Offerings are left on the floor beneath the bear's feet.

Encouraged, Griffin and Whit opened a brick-and-mortar store -- the Kentucky Fun Mall -- as a marketplace to sell quirky home-state items such as Kentucky-Derby-winner horse apples and KFC fried drumsticks preserved in alcohol. They also wanted their store to showcase unusual Kentucky relics, and that's when they remembered Cocaine Bear. "Growing up here, I remember hearing about it a lot," said Whit. Could it possibly still be around?

God save the bear.
God save the bear.

Griffin and Whit spoke with the medical examiner who'd performed the bear's necropsy. Even after 30 years he remembered the bear. He told them:

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

According to Griffin and Whit, the dead bear still looked good despite its catastrophic demise. It was stuffed and put on display at a local nature area -- without reference to its notorious past. But the bear's history was known to a few, and it eventually found its way into the hands of a Nashville pawnbroker. He sold the bear to outlaw country star Waylon Jennings, who gave it to a Las Vegas hustler who was familiar with Andrew Thornton. When both Jennings and the hustler died, the bear was bought by a Chinese herbalist in Reno. When the herbalist died, his widow kept it -- until she was tracked down by Griffin and Whit. She gladly gave them the bear, who arrived at the Fun Mall in Lexington in August 2015.

2017: Whit Hiler (in KFC bucket hat), Cocaine Bear, and Griffin VanMeter, who said the bear ate his shirt.
2017: Whit Hiler (in KFC bucket hat), Cocaine Bear, and Griffin VanMeter, who said the bear ate his shirt.

It took time -- and possibly some appreciative boosterism from roadsideamerica.com -- before Hollywood took notice. Cocaine Bear was transformed into a movie, and also transformed from a 150-pound bear that ate cocaine and immediately died into a 500-pound bear that snorted cocaine and become a drug-crazed apex predator: smashing, roaring, rampaging.

"We've gotten comments like, 'My God, how can you celebrate that bear?'" said Griffin, because people have confused the movie with real life. "They're concerned about the people eaten by the bear, not understanding that the bear didn't eat anyone."

Fried KFC drumsticks preserved in alcohol.
Fried KFC drumsticks preserved in alcohol.

Visitors to the Fun Mall see the true bear and understand that "Cokey" was more cuddlesome than carnivorous. "You wouldn't think that a Cocaine Bear would be for all ages, but kids love it," said Griffin. Offerings are left at Cocaine Bear's feet -- as they are at the graves of royalty -- which are "really beautiful," said Griffin. "One women knitted a kilo of cocaine." The Fun Mall even has a Cocaine Bear mascot suit, worn on special occasions. "We do a kind of Cocaine Bear Santa Claus; people can sit on Cocaine Bear's lap."

And Kentucky's liberal (and peculiar) marriage laws mean that Cocaine Bear can perform nuptials at the Fun Mall, despite being a bear and also dead. "As long as you feel that the person marrying you -- like Cocaine Bear -- has the authority, then that marriage can be binding here in Kentucky," said Griffin. Cocaine Bear officiated the Fun Mall's first wedding on March 27, 2023, marrying Armando Elizondo and Alexandra Venturino of Pikeville, a Kentucky town famous, like Lexington, for its own unusual attraction.

Griffin and Whit are attentive parents to Cocaine Bear. The Fun Mall's furry showpiece is given regular cleanings and outfit changes, and a sign cautions visitors against hugging or petting the old bear, something that has probably happened a lot over the years. Dangling from its neck is a flashy placard that gives the bear's proper name ("Pablo Escobear") and, in case visitors get the wrong impression, ends with this warning: "Don't do drugs or you'll end up dead (and maybe stuffed) like poor Cocaine Bear."

Cocaine Bear

Kentucky Fun Mall

Address:
1315 Winchester Rd, Lexington, KY
Directions:
Kentucky Fun Mall, in the Eastland Shopping Center. I-75 exit 110. Turn west onto US-60/Winchester Rd. Drive two miles. Shopping Center entrance on the right, just past the green Welcome to Lexington sign.
Hours:
M-Sa 10-6, Su 12-6 (Call to verify) Local health policies may affect hours and access.
Phone:
859-303-6359
RA Rates:
Major Fun
Save to My Sights
Roadside Videos
Meet The Real Cocaine Bear!

Meet the REAL Cocaine Bear.

The legend. The nightmare. Cocaine Bear expert Griffin VanMeter sorts out fact from fiction.Go to video


Ask an Expert: Why Does Everyone Love Cocaine Bear?

Why Everyone Loves Cocaine Bear.

Seemingly magical bear, on display in Lexington, KY, captured the attention of an easily-distracted nation. Owner Griffin VanMeter tells us how...Go to video


Nearby Offbeat Places

Horses, Riders, Jumping, WallsHorses, Riders, Jumping, Walls, Lexington, KY - 2 mi.
Horse CemeteryHorse Cemetery, Lexington, KY - 2 mi.
Giant Abraham Lincoln MuralGiant Abraham Lincoln Mural, Lexington, KY - 2 mi.
In the region:
Great American Dollhouse Museum, Danville, KY - 32 mi.

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