Beloved black bear dies at Dan Nicholas Park
By Jessie Burchette
Nicki, the black bear that thrilled and entertained thousands at Dan Nicholas Park for three decades, has died.
Nicki, 31, son of Lollipop and grandson of the famous Mildred the Bear of Grandfather Mountain, died Wednesday morning at the park.
Bob Pendergrass, nature center supervisor, praised the large bear as gentle and the most social toward the staff.
“Not only has Nicki been an ambassador for bears all of his life, he has been an ambassador for nature and wild animals in general,” Pendergrass said. “He will be missed.”
Nicki was born at the park in January 1978. His mother, Lollipop, came to the park in 1974 from Grandfather Mountain. Lollie died in March 2006.
For almost two decades, they lived in a small steel cage that prompted a public push for better quarters. In 2005, mother and son moved into a new habitat. The Rep. W. Eugene McCombs Black Bear Quarry includes huge boulders, a stream with fish and a tree trunk for rubbing.
Nature Center staff noticed Tuesday that Nicki was exhibited signs of congestion in his breathing.
Pendergrass said the problem did not appear to be major, but he contacted a veterinarian to visit Wednesday afternoon.
Nicki’s breathing problem worsened early Wednesday and the vet was asked to come sooner.
Nicki died before the veterinarian arrived.
Following standard practice, the staff took Nicki’s body to the state lab for an autopsy.
State veterinarian Dr. Kimberly Hagans reported finding a tumorous mass in the bear’s throat.
Pendergrass said Hagans suspected the mass was cancerous and that it had overtaken his thymus, a gland responsible for fighting disease and infection. In a phone call, Hagans said the mass had been growing for a while and had shifted, causing the sudden reaction and subsequent death.
“Dr. Hagan’s comments were that the tumor was in a situation that, if we had known it existed, there was nothing that we could have done to solve the problem,” Pendergrass said.
“We have no plans to replace Nicki, not that he could be replaced. His long life here, along with Lollipop, his mother, have brought a black bear up close and personal to hundreds of thousands of visitors, many of which would never have likely seen a black bear,” Pendergrass said.
He also credited Nicki and Lollipop as providing the major impetus for building the quality facility that we now have in Rowan Wildlife Adventures.
Contact Jessie Burchette at 704-797-4254.