When Little Bear showed up at C.W. Wathen’s Chestatee Wildlife Preserve and Zoo, he weighed just less than 12 pounds.
“He really was just skin on bone,” Wathen said. “When they handed him to us, it was like he was life-less.”
The small black bear cub – he’s called LB for short – was picked up after several reports of him wandering dangerously close to a local highway. The cub was in bad shape, and it looked like the Georgia Department of Natural Resources was going to have to put the animal down.
“Someone heard them talking about it on the scanner and let us know,” Wathen said. “It was pure luck.”
DNR took the cub out Old Dahlonega Highway to the preserve; Wathen and his staff got right to work, doing what they do. They had to nurse LB back to health.
And though luck may have been what brought LB to Wathen, it wasn’t luck that was going to save him.
Rescuing animals was never really in C.W. Wathen’s plan.
He grew up on a farm in Kentucky, though, surrounded by all the common farm animals: cows, chickens and the like.
After his father got out of the dairy business, Wathen took over the land and promptly acquired some buffalo in a trade for some of his dairy cows.
Over the ensuing years, he would acquire more animals, usually through owners who could no longer care for or afford them. Around that same time he moved to Georgia, and that’s when things changed. Wathen said he needed to get licensed by the state if he wanted to be able to keep the exotic animals he had already been caring for in Kentucky.
What he didn’t know immediately was that being licensed in Georgia meant the state might ask you to take in animals that were either rescued from the wild or confiscated from private owners.
Once he began taking in rescues, the Chestatee Wildlife Preserve really started to take shape: lions and tigers and bears, for real. Wathen moved his family and animals from Forsyth County to Dahlonega in order to have a little more acreage. He built his home on a hill overlooking the entrance to the preserve. Despite its growth, though, the preserve was still not technically open to the public.
That is until a hospital – Wathen can’t remember which – called and asked if they could bring a group of terminally ill patients to visit, all of them children. He unhesitatingly agreed.
“We brought them out, and it just opened their eyes and their hearts,” he said, beaming. “I’m telling you, you could just see it lift their pains.”
That was about 28 years ago. The Chestatee Wildlife Preserve hasn’t closed their doors since.
“The staff is out here feeding and tending to the animals everyday anyway, so we figure we might as well let people come whenever they can,” he said. “I haven’t had a vacation in 45 years … I’m not complaining though; this is the life I have chosen.”
The Chestatee Wildlife Preserve houses more than 150 animals, including everything from the mighty African lions and white Siberian tigers to hedgehogs and cockatoos, so Wathen and his staff have a wide set of knowledge.
And he attributes a lot of that knowledge to simply paying attention and having the animals’ best interests at heart at all times.
“It’s a labor of love to us here,” Wathen said. “we watch their ears, how they sit down, how they walk towards you, where their tails are and how they’re moving.”
It’s these things that you could only learn on the job that he tries to pass on to his staff, a lot of who volunteer their time, which is something he said is invaluable.
As a 501 (c) nonprofit, the preserve relies completely on private funding and heavily on volunteers.
“As long as you’re 18 years old and able to lift about 40 pounds a day, we can put you to work,” he said.
Just don’t think you’re going to get to feed the big cats on the first day.
There are people who don’t appreciate what Wathen is doing. It’s the nature of his business, though.
He is providing a service to the state by taking in these animals that would otherwise be put down, in one fashion or another.
But he has to take care of them properly and abide by state and federal guidelines, which can be expensive.
Animal rights activists want him to give the animals more room to live, and though Wathen said he and his staff agree and strive to do so, they can only work with the resources they have.
“Yes, of course, we get flack,” Wathen said. “But they are usually people that don’t understand what we are doing here; we think it is better to have an animal safe and in an enclosure, rather than stuffed on some wall or put in the ground.”
Back to Little Bear.
Luck brought him to Chestatee. Hard work and loving dedication saved his life. C.W. Wathen and his staff saved his life.
Today, Little Bear is two years older and about 250 pounds heavier. He spends his days hanging around with a grizzly bear, which would certainly be his mortal enemy in the wild. Here they play together. Sometimes wrestling. Sometimes chasing. Sometimes sun bathing.
He gets plenty of food and plenty of exercise, but, of course, he’s not in the wild.
In reality though, he wouldn’t survive there now and certainly wouldn’t have two years ago.
“These animals can’t be turned back out into the wild,” he said. “We prolong their lives, and we think they have good lives here.”
As to what the future holds, Wathen isn’t sure. He knows he wants to keep expanding, as funding allows, but because he relies so heavily on donations, major planning for the future can be a little futile.
“But I got a little 8-year-old,” he said. Her name is Bella, and Wathen is confident that when the day comes for her to take the proverbial reins, she will wholeheartedly.
“She lives and breathes this with me, too. We run side-by-side every day.”