​There’s a true story behind ‘Cocaine Bear’—and it’s no laughing matter

​The new comedic horror film is based on the real-life drug overdose of an American black bear—and illustrates how human recklessness endangers wildlife.

What would happen if a massive mammal ingested a bear-sized load of cocaine? Cocaine Bear, a comedic horror film directed by Elizabeth Banks, imagines the results: a chaotic, coke-fueled, carnivorous blood fest. The film is a hit, raking in over $57 million worldwide. But there’s a true story behind the bear—and it’s no laughing matter.

The film was based on a 1985 incident involving a 200-pound American black bear that was found dead from an overdose in a Georgia forest. The strange discovery was front-page news, and garnered the bear joking nicknames like “snow bear” and “Pablo Escobear.”

But the story of the real cocaine bear began decades earlier—and highlights the effects of humans’ recklessness when it comes to the wildlife around them.

How did the bear get its paws on cocaine?

The real story begins with a man named Andrew Carter Thornton II. Born in 1944, he was the son of a prominent Kentucky horse breeder and became an expert paratrooper for the U.S. Army, even earning a Purple Heart when the U.S. invaded the Dominican Republic in 1965.

Thornton left the Army that same year and returned to Kentucky, where he joined the Lexington police department’s narcotics squad. But Thornton soon became more interested in selling drugs than cracking down on them. As a former colleague told investigative reporter Sally Denton years later, Thornton was “‘an 007 paramilitary type personality...an adventurer driven by adrenaline rushes’ who got bored being a cop.” He eventually resigned from the police and became an attorney.

(Cocaine bear? Learn about Pablo Escobar's "cocaine hippos.")

Thornton’s desire for excitement led him further and further into his side career in narcotics trafficking. In 1981, he was indicted along with 24 others for piloting a plane that smuggled marijuana from South America into Lexington, Kentucky; after months as a fugitive and a massive manhunt, he served five months in prison and was disbarred.

Then, in September 1985, Thornton took to the skies for what would be his last drug smuggling mission, jumping out of a plane over Knoxville, Tennessee, with a duffel bag containing $15 million in cocaine. He died when his parachute failed.

But though Thornton’s life was over, his legacy was not. Two months after the smuggler’s death, a Georgia hunter found a dead bear surrounded by the remains of a duffel bag investigators would later deem to be Thornton’s. A medical examiner concluded the 200-pound bear had died of acute cocaine intoxication after ingesting about three to four grams of cocaine. “It’s enough to kill anybody,” the investigator told reporters.

What happens when an animal ingests cocaine?

But did the animal actually get high from the cocaine? It’s unclear—and scientists are unsure whether any animal experiences the same type of high that humans do from substances like alcohol, marijuana, or cocaine. Though animals do ingest substances like catnip, hallucinogenic mushrooms, and alcohol, there’s no way to know if they seek out the substances for their recreational effects.

But drugs do have some effects on animals: Reindeer have been seen acting erratically after consuming mushrooms, for example, and all sorts of wildlife has been observed getting sleepy after a sip of alcohol. Sometimes, too, ingesting them can be lethal.

(Here's what we know about whether animals get drunk.)

When the real "cocaine bear” was found in the woods, it had been dead for about a month. In contrast to the rampages depicted in the film, investigators didn’t report any threatening or destructive behavior ahead of its death. Nor did it eat the entirety of the cocaine Thornton is thought to have smuggled—and officials concluded that a human had made off with the rest.

As ursinologist Chris Morgan told Vox’s Alex Abad-Santos, though it’s likely that the bear experienced a physiological reaction of some kind, the story of its death is less a tale of a drug-crazed bear and more an illustration of how humans’ trash endangers animals.

The reality of wildlife and drugs

Many cases of drug ingestion by animals can be explained by curiosity or just plain hunger—and though accidental exposure is common, it’s often the result of human carelessness or cruelty.

Studies have found that when human drug use rises, animals are more likely to consume those drugs. One team of researchers found that dogs are at greater risk for opioid poisoning in places with higher opioid prescription rates, while dogs living in states with lower legal penalties for marijuana use are also at higher risk.

Marijuana toxicity can disable and even kill cats and dogs, but the Pet Poison Helpline, a poison-control service, says it gets even more calls about animals accidentally eating antidepressant and anti-anxiety medications, ibuprofen, and other toxic substances contained in human medications.

In many states, intentionally giving an animal drugs or alcohol is a crime. Increased legal protections for animals are part of a wider trend of legal measures gaining traction nationwide, Nat Geo reported earlier this year. One new National Park Service proposal being considered would ban the use of food lures such as donuts, dog food, and bacon grease in bear hunts—an effort to keep the animals from becoming accustomed to scavenging for human trash.

(These animal-friendly laws are gaining traction in the U.S.)

The aftermath

As it turns out, the cocaine-poisoned bear wasn’t the only one put in potential danger by Thornton’s drug run. It had found just one of many drug-stuffed duffel bags Thornton allegedly dumped throughout rural Georgia and Tennessee before his fatal skydive. In the wake of his death, investigators found evidence Thornton and his associates had smuggled 880 pounds of cocaine into the U.S. However, no other bear casualties—or cocaine-induced rampages—were reported.

For decades, Cocaine Bear remained a tragic footnote in the life of a legendary career in crime. But the 2023 film has made the bear’s coke-provoked end a legend of its own. And incredibly, “Pablo Escobear” isn’t the only cocaine-ingesting animal in the news: Reports have surfaced of a wild cat captured in Cincinnati with cocaine in its system—another reminder that animals and substances designed for humans are a dangerous match.

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