GATLINBURG, Tenn. (WATE) — The potential cause of the illness that left two cubs at Appalachian Bear Rescue (ABR) dead and four more sick may have been found, according to veterinarians from University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine (UTCVM).

ABR shared a update on the rescue’s sick bears on Facebook Live with Dr. Emi Knafo and Dr. Liandrie Swanepoel from UTCVM on Friday, Oct. 13.

Around the beginning of October, ABR curators first noticed one of the bears at the rescue, Flapjack, was suddenly unwell. Shortly after Flapjack’s passing on Friday, Oct. 6, it was discovered that his enclosure-mates had a similar illness that left them fighting pneumonia. A second bear, Burrito, died a few days later.

Knafo and Swanepoel explained that they had been able to isolate a specific streptococcus bacteria in all but one of the bears, and the same bacteria was found in a culture from one of the bears who had died. Since the bacteria was so widely found, Knafo said it gave them good evidence that it was the main cause of the illness in the group of bears.

The specific strain of the bacteria is one that is found in gallinaceous birds, such as domesticated chickens and turkeys, they said. While it has not been determined exactly where the bacteria was first introduced to the bears, one speculative source mentioned during the update was a poultry origin.

According to ABR Executive Director Dana Dodd, with that information, one possible way the bacteria may have been introduced is with Martha Washington and Betsy Ross bears.

“The last two bears to be added to this group of bears in this in these enclosures, those were Martha Washington and Betsy Ross on the 4th of July, so we haven’t added any new bear to the mix since that time,” Dodd said. “And those two bears were orphaned when their mother was killed after eating chickens, so we don’t know if there is a link there or not, but it is something.”

While exactly how the bacteria was introduced to the cubs is still being actively investigated, ABR curators and the veterinarians shared that the surviving bears were put on an antibiotic from the beginning that seems to be treating the infection. ABR said the bears are still showing some wheezing and coughing, but they have been taking their medicine and are sounding better.

The bear who is the sickest of the four cubs, Tamale, has shown remarkable improvement, according to ABR. When he arrived at UTCVM after the illness was discovered, his blood oxygen level was 65.

Tamale Bear taking a nap. (Courtesy: Appalachian Bear Rescue)

In addition to monitoring the bears who have shown signs of illness, ABR curators are also monitoring the other bears at the rescue for any signs of illness, such as coughing or wheezing, through cameras and as they walk the perimeters of the enclosures when the bears are fed.

Moving forward, ABR and the veterinarians at UTCVM are working with state veterinarians and national park veterinarians to develop a plan for if the cubs’ releases will be delayed because of the illness and when the cubs will allowed to return to their everyday life at the rescue. According to Knafo, they are expecting the cubs to need about four weeks of treatment since that is generally how long it takes severe pneumonia to be resolved, although that time period could be longer depending on clinical measures and x-rays.

Dodd added that she wanted to thank all of the staff and doctors at the University of Tennessee who have helped find answers for the cubs.

“I want to publicly thank all of the staff and doctors at the University of Tennessee, I know that their pathologists have been harassed all week. They’re they’re growing cultures as fast as they can. They’re reading results as fast as they can and we couldn’t, at least earlier this week, we couldn’t get results fast enough,” Dodd said. “Everybody there has been so helpful, so knowledgeable. The vet technicians there, the students there, the residents, the interns, the people in emergency, the people who answer the phones at the in the front office, we and your favorite bears have received nothing but absolutely the. Very best medical care and response that we could possibly get at for these bears and we know that without their help, one we could all be sick and two, these bears could not would not make it.”