A three-year-old boy who survived two nights alone in freezing woodland has said he was protected by a bear while missing.
Rescuers found Casey Hathaway tangled up in thorny bushes in Craven County, eastern North Carolina, close to where he disappeared from his grandmother’s home.
He had gone missing on Tuesday in sub-zero temperatures and searches were later called off due to heavy rain and strong winds.
Casey was located by police after a member of the public heard a child crying and shouting for their mother about 45 metres into the woods.
Craven County sheriff Chip Hughes told local television station WCTI: “He didn’t really get into how he was able to survive and all that. He did say he had a friend in the woods that was a bear that was with him.”
The claim was repeated by the boy’s aunt, Breanna Hathaway, who wrote on Facebook: “Casey is healthy, smiling and talking. He 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.”
Black bears are abundant in North Carolina and are not typically aggressive towards humans, although it is unclear whether the one which befriended Casey was real or imaginary.
A fundraising page, set up by the boy’s family after well-wishers reportedly asked how to make donations, references his claimed woodland companion.
“This little one was lost in the woods for days in the freezing temperatures, rain, dark nights and wind,” wrote his grandmother on the page, headlined “Casey and the Bear”.
She added: “He told us that his best friend the bear was with him to help keep him safe.”
Casey was taken to hospital for evaluation after being found. Mr Hughes said he was “wet, cold and scratched up”, as well as dehydrated, but otherwise in good health.
Casey went missing while playing with two other children in his grandmother’s back garden in the village of Enrul. US Marines, the FBI and hundreds of volunteers assisted the search.