Despite public pressure from animal rights activists, including a visit from legendary game show host Bob Barker, Cherokee leaders do not plan to address the living conditions of captive bears at three small zoos in Cherokee.
A campaign to shut down the bear zoos in Cherokee has largely targeted Chief Michell Hicks. Hicks says he supports the bear zoos, however, and disagrees with claims driven by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the bears’ conditions are inhumane.
While Hicks agreed to meet with Barker and PETA reps last week, he warned them not to protest outside the bear zoos again without permission from tribal officials or they would be kicked off the Cherokee reservation, an option in the tribe’s corner given its status as a sovereign entity.
While Hicks has made his stance clear, the elected tribal council members — not the chief — hold the power to pass new laws and ordinances. Out of the 12 tribal council members, five responded to requests for comment. All five said that tribal council has no plans to shut down the bear zoos or to impose tougher standards.
“We are going to stand with the chief on this issue,” said David Wolfe, a tribal council member from Yellowhill.
B. Ensley, also a council member from Yellowhill, agreed.
“It is dead issue as far as I am concerned,” he said.
Tribal council members say a federal inspection of the bear zoos once a year provides sufficient oversight of the animals’ care and treatment, despite accusations to the contrary.
“I think it has been overblown,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “What (PETA) did was unfair to Cherokee and Western North Carolina.”
The bear zoos are entrenched in the Cherokee tourism scene.
“They have been around forever,” said Abe Wachacha, a tribal council member from Snowbird.
Several tribal council members cited the long-standing presence of the zoos as reason enough to let them continue.
“This has been their way of life and an attraction for Cherokee as long as I remember,” said Angie Kephart, a tribal council member from Cherokee County. “We used to go when we were little.”
Kephart said Barker’s celebrity status has propelled the issue, but is not a reason to shut down the zoos.
“I don’t understand why it is such a big issue,” Kephart said. “Whatever the case may be, I think we have bigger issues to attend to than the bears. We need to be addressing things going on with our tribal members and the reservation as a whole.”
Like Hicks, tribal council members said they were offended by outsiders trying to tell them what to do.
“They come in here harassing people and use their organization PETA to try to do things with numbers and hand out propaganda,” Wolfe said.
While sidewalk picketing is seen as a form of free speech in most places, those protections don’t necessarily apply in Cherokee as a sovereign entity with its own laws.
Kephart said Barker and PETA should have shown more respect and treaded more lightly.
“This is the tribe,” Kephart said. “We are a sovereign nation. We can do what we want to.”
Wachacha said this is not the first time outsiders have complained about the bear zoos.
“Other people have come before the tribe, even back in the 1980s,” Wachacha said.
Cherokee’s style of government allows any member of the tribe to bring proposed legislation before the tribal council. However, complaints about the bears have never come from a tribal member.
“We would consider it if a tribal member wanted to bring that in,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “All our people have that opportunity to address their government.”
Kephart said if the issue does come before tribal council, it would be appropriate to look at the existing codes and make sure they are adequate.
But Wolfe doubts it would go anywhere.
“I don’t see us tightening up or doing anything more than what they are doing,” Wolfe said.
Bob Barker and PETA say they will continue fighting the issue, even taking it to a national stage. Wachacha said he does not think it would hamper tourism or pose an image problem for Cherokee.
Shell said he has actually noticed more cars in the parking lots of one bear zoo since PETA’s campaign grabbed headlines in recent weeks.