When 3-year-old Casey Hathaway told his mom a bear befriended him while he was lost in the woods last week, it gave rise to radical conspiracy theories, strange social media debates and even a few jokes by talk show hosts like Stephen Colbert.
Had the North Carolina boy really survived two days outdoors in temperatures as low as 17 degrees, with no food or water?
And was there really a bear...or is that just a child’s active imagination at work?
Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes, who led hundreds of volunteers in a search for the boy, addressed one of the more sinister conspiracies this week, telling TV station WCTI that there is no proof Casey had been held against his will.
“Everybody’s got a theory about what took place, and how there is no way this child could have survived,” Hughes told WCTI.
“The notion that he was sitting in a house or a vehicle for two days and put out there a couple of hours before we found him is absolutely not true. His core temperature was very low, his fingers and all had a bit of frost bite.”
Casey wandered away from his grandmother’s Craven County yard on Jan. 22 and was found two days later, stuck deep in a tangle of vines and briars.
CNN reported Tuesday that Casey is to “undergo a forensic psychological exam,” when authorities believe he has sufficiently recovered.
Maj. David McFadyen of the Craven County Sheriff’s Office told CNN there is nothing to indicate Casey was actually with a bear, a story the boy told his mother in the hospital Friday.
“He has not been interviewed yet about what happened, (but) he’s a 3-year-old little boy,” McFadyen told CNN. “Until we do the forensic exam we won’t have a definite idea.”
It was the bear story that got the attention of Late Show host Stephen Colbert, who joked on air that “a snack-sized human arrives in this bear’s woods and it doesn’t even eat him.”
The British news outlet The Guardian consulted researchers about the possibility the story might be true, calling it a “seemingly remarkable tale of Jungle Book-style inter-species friendship.”
It concluded the story “was most likely the product of Casey’s imagination,” though a bear researcher at the University of Montana suggested the boy himself might believe it.
The most unexpected of the theories is still being hotly debated on multiple Facebook pages: That the bear might have been a Bigfoot or Sasquatch, the mythical half-man, half-beast said to roam the nation’s backwoods.
Bears are hibernating now, say the sites, so one wouldn’t have befriended a lost boy.
“Sasquatch researchers suggest that the boy may have been in the care of an animal that he called a bear because...he didn’t know what a Sasquatch (or even an ape) was if, it was one,” posted the International Cryptozoology Museum on Facebook.