In autumn of 2019, a special animal adoption took place at Grandfather Mountain in memory of Ralph Wheeles. His wife, Carolyn, and their son, Wayne, adopted Carolina, one of Grandfather Mountain’s resident habitat black bears, because of their deep emotional connection to the mountain as a place of healing. After many years of traveling the globe, the Wheeles family always thought of Grandfather Mountain as home and “one of the single most beautiful places on earth.” It made sense in their time of grief that they would return to Grandfather Mountain to find peace and remember Ralph.
At 26 years of age, Carolina is the oldest black bear residing in Grandfather’s animal habitats. Her caretakers describe her as sweet, calm and loving. In her younger years, she gave birth to several cubs and even adopted a couple to raise as her own. She’s one of the more recognizable bears at Grandfather as she’s missing the top end of her left ear, which only makes her appearance more adorable!
Following the reopening of the mountain during the pandemic, Carolyn and Wayne were among the first in line to visit Carolina again and have been back to see her and the other black bears that call Grandfather Mountain home several times, which helps keep Ralph’s memory and legacy alive.
This past August, Wayne reached out to the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation about helping Carolyn, who is in the late stages of Parkinson’s Disease, connect with Carolina and fond memories of the mountain. She is no longer able to physically travel to Grandfather Mountain to visit Carolina, so Wayne asked if the Stewardship Foundation could bring the experience to her in the form of a virtual Behind-the-Scenes Tour.
The animal habitat curators, along with the development team and education staff, were thrilled at the opportunity and decided to expand the request into a behind-the-scenes video, which could also be used to enhance educational outreach in local schools. The result is an approximately 30-minute video that features Carolina, as well as the otters, elk and cougars, and is hosted by Deborah Anderson, the animal habitats assistant curator. Wayne is sharing the film with his mother and family so that Carolina and her friends can help continue their special bond with the Wheeles family.
“Grandfather Mountain, no matter where you come from, gives one a unique sense of peace, nature and, most of all, ‘home,’” said Wayne. “The scenery is beyond breathtaking! Grandfather Mountain remains a true gem for both enjoying nature and wildlife that is incredibly unique. To my family, Grandfather Mountain has always represented a sense of being home and renewal.”
About the Animal Adoption Program
The Animal Adoption Program started in 2009, when the Grandfather Mountain Stewardship Foundation was founded. It helps improve the lives of the animals in our care by providing funds to purchase treats, toys and other enrichments to give the animals something fun and different to liven up their days. Adoption levels range from $25 to $1,000, and 16 animals who call Grandfather Mountain home are eligible. For more information on the Adopt-an-Animal Program, visit: www.grandfather.com/adopt.
Photo above: Carolyn Wheeles, Wayne Wheeles and Austin Tabot (Wayne’s son-in-law) stand by a wood carving of Carolina that they had custom made to honor Ralph and remember their love of Grandfather Mountain.