Cherokee elders file suit against bear zoo

Two months after sending a notice informing the Cherokee Bear Zoo of their intent to sue the roadside menagerie for violations of the Endangered Species Act, two enrolled elders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians have filed a lawsuit challenging the zoo’s abusive practice of confining bears, including ESA-protected grizzly bears, to concrete pits.

The elders’ lawsuit argues that these pits — which deny the bears the opportunity to express any natural behavior — violate the ESA’s prohibition on harming protected animals, and it seeks forfeiture of the bears.

“It’s shameful that the Cherokee Bear Zoo is still displaying intelligent, sensitive bears in tiny concrete pits,” said tribal elder Amy Walker, who filed the lawsuit along with fellow elder Peggy Hill. “It’s obvious to anyone who sees them that these bears are suffering, and they will continue to suffer every day until they are sent to a sanctuary where they’ll finally receive the care they need.” 

The elders contend that the following violations occur at the Cherokee Bear Zoo: 

• The pits that the bears are kept in range in size from about 300 to 1,300 square feet — a tiny fraction of the size of a bear’s normal range in the wild. 

• The pits deny the bears opportunities to forage, hibernate, nest, and satisfy their most basic needs. Instead, they are forced to beg for food from tourists.

• Because of their inadequate environment, the bears exhibit signs of severe psychological distress, including incessant pacing and circling.

• The zoo has housed grizzly cubs in bird cages, as well as the concrete pits, and used the young animals for photo shoots. Once they are deemed to be too large for photo shoots, they are sold or otherwise disposed of.

 Earlier this year, the 11 bears who had been held in similar conditions at Chief Saunooke Bear Park were taken to an animal sanctuary in Texas, where they have trees to climb, ponds to swim in, and fresh, nutritious food to eat.

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