Three-year-old boy says friendly bear looked after him while lost in North Carolina woods

Casey Hathaway
Casey Hathaway was missing in the North Carolina woods for two days. Photo credit: Breanna Hathaway / Facebook/Getty

A three-year-old boy survived two freezing winter nights alone in the North Carolina woods - and he says a bear helped him do it.

Casey Hathaway went missing from his grandmother's home in Ernul, Craven county, on Tuesday, January 22 (local time). The toddler's disappearance sparked an extensive search involving rescue helicopters, drones and hundreds of volunteers.

The freezing conditions were so harsh that the search was called off after two days, with volunteers told to stay away for their own safety.

On Thursday, rescuers responded to reports of a baby crying in the woods around grandmother Breanna Hathaway's house. Casey was found about 400m from the property, soaking wet and tangled up in briars but still wearing his coat.

Search teams had to wade through cold waist-deep water to reach the boy, who was rushed to hospital and nursed back to health.

It's unknown exactly how Casey survived his ordeal, but he claims it was all thanks to a friendly bear.

In a Facebook post that has since been made private, Mrs Hathaway wrote that her grandson "said he hung out with a bear for two days".

"God sent him a friend to keep him safe. God is a good God. Miracles do happen."

Craven County Sheriff Chip Hughes told local station NewsChannel 12 that Casey "did say he had a friend in the woods that was a bear".

He didn't elaborate on whether he thought the bear was real or imaginary.

Locals, while thrilled at Casey's heroic survival, are divided on whether he really met a bear in the woods. Craven County Sheriff's Office's official Facebook page posted an update about the investigation - which is ongoing despite no evidence of criminal activity - and included a picture of a bear next to a photo of Casey.

"You guys, there was no magic Jesus bear," reads one of the top comments.

"We are all relieved that Casey is home and safe, but succumbing to fairytales doesn't disprove science. A three-year-old without substantial winter clothing wouldn't survive freezing temps."

The commenter goes on to say the case is "wildly suspicious".

However other people said they believe Casey's story about the bear, with some claiming God had sent the boy a guardian angel in the form of the animal.

Black bears are common in the area, but experts are doubtful that a bear would keep a human company if it encountered one in its natural habitat.

"I think the little boy had a fantasy," bear researcher Chris Servheen told The Guardian.

"The bear wouldn't feel sorry for him, thinking he's alone. That's ascribing human characteristics on wild animals, which is anthropomorphism.

"But if the boy felt comfortable under the watch of a wild animal, that's fine. Whatever helped him get through it."