Martin Luther King Day Celebration :: Click to see Events Schedule!

Click for Franklin, North Carolina Forecast

News Cherokee zoos attracting unwanted attention from PETA

This PETA-sponsored billboard, on I-26 near Asheville, N.C., warns of the danger of keeping bears captive.The two-year controversy between the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and the Cherokee Reservation continues with a new billboard recently posted by the PETA organization on Interstate 26 near Asheville, N.C.

The billboard, which features a disturbing image of a small girl in tears with a bloody, bandaged hand, claims the zoos are “prisons” and discourages tourists from visiting them.

The billboard was posted almost one year after a 9-year-old girl was bitten by a 6-month-old bear cub while feeding it a mixture of Lucky Charms and cat food provided by the bear park she was visiting. The bear attack occurred last summer during the USDA’s inspection of the Chief Saunooke Bear Park (CSBP), which is one of three bear parks located on the reservation.

PETA notes that the conditions at the CSBP are a prime example of one of the findings of the June 2010 Office of Inspector General Audit stating that the USDA cannot adequately ensure the safety of the public at zoos.

All three of the parks — Cherokee Bear Zoo, CSBP and Santa’s Land — are targets of PETA’s billboard campaign. According to the zoo owners, all of the bear parks are essential components of the tourism economy for Cherokee.

Celebrity personality and iconic game show host, Bob Barker, visited the parks to negotiate terms of improving conditions for the bears in 2009, but Barker was subsequently banned from entering the zoos.

Barker cited in a blog posted on for Larry King Live, that the owners of the zoos were “ashamed” of the conditions in which the bears lived and that is why they refused to let him in.

A bear in captivity in Cherokee has numerous rub wounds, possibly from contact with the concrete in its enclosure. Photo provided by PETAAccording to his blog, Barker was first informed of the conditions of the bear parks after his friend, Congressman Bill Young of Florida shared with him information from his wife, Beverly’s visit to the CSBP with her children. According to Beverly, the condition of the “cubicles” that the six to seven bears housed at CSBP were kept in was “sickening.” She also reported that the bears’ fur was hanging off and they were begging for food. After Beverly witnessed an employee tossing one bear cub around violently, she had an uncomfortable confrontation with the employee and as a result, was asked to leave the park. She described the conditions to Barker saying, “The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated better than these bears, who have done nothing.” Barker immediately contacted PETA to further investigate the situation.

“The cruel bear displays are a glaring blemish on the area,” Barker further stated in the blog, “I hope that the members of the Tribal Council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will open their hearts and do the right thing by shutting them down.”

Principal Chief Hicks commented that “The Eastern Band of Cherokee disagrees with the tactics used by PETA in their perceived grievance with business owners in Cherokee. The bear zoos in Cherokee operate within all applicable laws and under the regulations which govern their business. I believe in free enterprise and think business owners are vital to our economy.”

A recent inspection report conducted by PETA states that “the facilities failed to provide for the basic, essential needs of bears in captivity...[or to] make changes to mitigate the inhumane conditions of the concrete pit enclosure design or the undersize cages.” The main problems that PETA found were that the bears were enclosed in a basic concrete pit which was too small for that type of animal and each pit did not have any “special apparatus” for which the animals could climb on or entertain themselves.

The organization broke down the natural conditions of bears into different categories such as environment, diet, physical trauma, behavior and husbandry. The document reports that the domesticated bears are suffering from lack of protection from the weather, lack of enrichment and generally suffering from physical and psychological stress.

Barry Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo, declares that “[the billboard] has affected my business earnings. PETA is doing a lot of harm to my family.” Coggins is adamant in making people aware that he and his staff are good to the animals. “We love them like pets,” he said.

Approximately ten American black bears and grizzly bears are currently in the Cherokee Bear Zoo. The Cherokee Bear Zoo website claims that “all our animals are well cared for.” However, the PETA report described the living quarters as high concrete, barren walls. They say the bears are completely surrounded by concrete. There is a small pool, also in concrete, but hardly adequate for the bears to easily access.

“The only objects said to be present were a single old rubber tire in each enclosure and a short section of old tree branch on the floor of one of the grizzly bear enclosures.”

The reports for the other two zoos were similar in their findings. Both facilities were in need of repair according to PETA. Where there were not concrete walls, there was rusty chain link fences.

A bear climbs the cage door at a bear park in Cherokee.At the Chief Saunooke Bear Park, the PETA report states that the “furnishings were old, sparse, and nonfunctional.” Dating back to October 2008, a complaint filed by PETA led to the USDA citing CSBP for unsafe animal handling after discovering that only a chain-link fence separated two bear cubs and two wolves from the public. The following year in December 2009 the USDA cited CSBP for having inadequately trained its employees after a 75-year-old caretaker was attacked by one of the park’s bears. According to the USDA’s report, the incident involving the 9-year-old girl was the second documented attack of its kind within one week. The most recent report also cited CSBP for risking serious injury to both the bears on the public by maintaining unsafe enclosures, feeding bears cat food and cereal, and for reusing filthy food trays.

Santa’s Land is widely known for their petting zoo, which amongst other exotic animals, includes baby bears. The zoo has grown somewhat over the years with two baby bear cubs are obtained from a special breeder specifically for the petting zoo each year. The PETA report calls this out as a major problem. The report states, “Bears are bought and sold like commodities and have no semblance of normal bear life. Bears in this situation suffer enormously at the hands of uncaring and unskilled people.” Alice Blanton, a former employee of Santa’s Land during the 1980s, commented that when she was working at Santa’s Land there was only one bear. He was an older bear named Gentle Ben. She said that Gentle Ben was kept out front either in a cage or leashed to something to draw visitors in.

“I always felt sorry for Gentle Ben being out in the heat,” Blanton said. “They kept him in the shade but it was still hot.” But Blanton does not recall any mistreatment or any problems related with Gentle Ben as described in the PETA report.

In PETA recommendations, PETA partly blames AWA and USDA officials for not keeping up with the changes to federal law concerning caged animals. Otherwise, their first recommendation is that the facilities be closed completely. PETA’s next suggestion is that the USDA hire bear specialists, veterinary technicians, and other highly trained staff to properly care for the bears and bring the facilities up to current regulations.

Due to PETA’s inability to provide for the animals they have seized in the past, their current recommendations are arguably questionable. According to 2010 records that the organization filed with the Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, PETA received 2,345 animals, only 44 of which were adopted and 63 animals were transferred to another facility. That means that an overwhelming 93.8 percent of adoptable pets were unnecessarily killed. The PETA website openly expresses its desire to end all farms, hunting, fishing, laboratory experimentation, using animals for entertainment purposes and even private ownership of animals as pets. The organization presses the public to adopt an all vegan diet and to stop buying animal related clothing, but because of their inability to care for the animals they are attempting to save, the majority of them die anyway.

CORRECTION: PETA has contested this article in the July 28 issue of the Macon County News that 93.8 percent of the animals killed in PETA's care in 2010 were adoptable. In an email to MCN dated Aug 1, PETA states that “most of the animals we take in are society's rejects; they are aggressive, on death's door, or otherwise often happens that the kindest thing to do for these animals-and, in fact, the best way to care for them-is to grant them a peaceful and painless death.”

According to PETA claims that the pet overpopulation problem makes euthanasia a requirement. PETA's website states that “an estimated 6 to 8 million lost, abandoned or unwanted dogs and cats enter animal shelters...and approximately 3 to 4 million cats and dogs-many of them healthy, young, and adoptable-must be euthanized in animal shelters every year.” The PETA website further states that “sometimes the most humane thing that a shelter worker can do is give an animal a peaceful release from a world in which dogs and cats are often considered 'surplus.'”

Patrick Lambert, executive director of the Cherokee Tribal Gaming Commission, is currently running for principal chief this year and said that he would like to see a zoo built on the reservation that would offer a more natural habitat for the animals. According to Lambert, efforts need to be made to close the concrete bear zoos and show the humane, Native American way of dealing with the animals. Lambert believes that a larger zoo would benefit the economy by attracting more families.

There is no denying that changes need to be made to the conditions of the bear parks in Cherokee. The well being of the animals needs to be the focus in the debate between the Cherokee Indian Reservation and PETA. With that in mind, Debbie Leahy, director of PETA said, “Frustrated bears, who have been denied everything that’s natural and important to them, are likely to bite,” she said, “We are calling on the government to revoke this inhumane enterprise’s license.”

Macon County News is now on:
Find the Macon County News on Facebook! and Find the Macon County News on twitter!
Facebook   Twitter