January 22, 2017

Cherokee elders push to free bears at private zoos

CHEROKEE, N.C. (AP) – Peggy Hill was outraged. After watching a video of bears endlessly circling their tiny enclosures at a privately owned zoo on a Cherokee Indian reservation, she knew she had to act.

Hill and other members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians began pressing the tribal council to force that zoo and two others on the reservation to free the bears.

Now it appears Eastern Band leaders are ready to tackle the issue.

At a contentious meeting this week, the tribal council said it's considering a resolution introduced by Hill and supporters to revoke the zoos' licenses and require the owners to remove the bears from captivity.

The council says it will study the issue, and the resolution could come up for a vote at its March meeting.

Hill, 72, said this is the first time that Cherokee elders have publicly spoken out about the issue.

“Most Cherokee people had no idea what was taking place behind the bars of these roadside zoos,” Hill said. She said elders are so appalled “at the horrible treatment of these jailed bears” that they decided to take action.

It is the latest development in the long, public campaign to close the zoos where more than two dozen black, Asian and grizzly bears are confined in cages and barren concrete pits.

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed complaints with federal regulators and Cherokee leaders about the bears' living conditions. Last year, the animal-rights group posted billboards in the area, calling the bear zoos “prisons” and noting an incident in which a 9-year-old girl was bitten while feeding a baby bear.

The reservation's three roadside zoos – Cherokee Bear Zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park and Santa's Land – are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act. The Eastern Band's wildlife office also inspects the zoos.

The USDA last month suspended the Chief Saunooke Bear Park's exhibitor's license and fined the owner $20,000 over inhumane conditions. Inspectors found that the zoo was failing to provide the bears with appropriate food, proper veterinary care and a safe enclosure.

The suspension is in place until inspectors determine the facility complies with animal welfare standards.

Former game show host and longtime animal-rights activist Bob Barker recently predicted that tourists will avoid Cherokee Indian attractions in North Carolina until the tribe stops the zoos from displaying bears in cramped enclosures.

The tribe's principal chief, Michell Hicks, said he found the comments from Barker and PETA offensive.

Delcianna Winders, PETA's director of captive animal law, said her group will continue fighting to free the bears from captivity and was thrilled that the elders have gotten involved in the issue.

“This has given a black eye to the community,” she said of the issue.

The Eastern Band has allowed caged animals as a tourism draw since the 1950s.

For years, the community in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains has depended on its natural landscape and wildlife – with hiking trails, fishing streams and whitewater rapids – to attract tourists. But now, many people come to western North Carolina for the casino, which opened on the reservation in 1997.

Hill said she didn't know about the zoos until January, when she watched an online video from what PETA called an undercover investigation of Chief Saunooke Bear Park.

The video showed bears rocking back and forth and circling in the tiny pits. One man identified by PETA as a park employee discusses killing a bear that bit someone by shooting it 20 times in the head. He claims he later ate the animal.

“I was so angry when I saw that video,” Hill said.

At the tribal council meeting Thursday, Hill passionately appealed to members to pass the resolution. So did other Cherokee elders.

Hicks didn't return telephone calls for comment. But he released a statement, saying he wanted to give private zoo owners the opportunity to create a wildlife preserve on the reservation.

“Exhibiting and celebrating our wildlife has long been part of Cherokee's economy, and I believe it's important to continue to showcase our bears and other wildlife. However, we need to create a more animal friendly environment for these animals,” his statement read.

Council member Perry Shell said action must be taken.

“We all know it's wrong,” he said. “But we don't need PETA coming in here to tell us it's wrong.”

Still, it was the PETA video that “forced us to do something,” said Amy Walker, a Cherokee who supports closing the zoos.

She said Cherokees are taught to respect all life. “What are we doing here?” she asked.

Sylvester Crowe, 74, said some Cherokees were against the roadside bear exhibits when they began appearing on the reservation in the 1950s.

“Nobody listened to them and they gave up, and the younger generation came along and accepted it,” he said. “We have a chance to right that wrong.”

A bear paces inside the pit at Chief Saunook's Bear Park.