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Bears from shut-down zoo find new, friendlier habitat

fr bearsEleven bears once confined to concrete pits at Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Cherokee have found greener pastures in Texas after the bear park was shut down following repeated federal violations. 


An anonymous donor from California gave $450,000 to construct eight separate enclosures at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Boyd, Texas. Each is larger than an acre and includes trees to climb, dirt to dig, caves to sleep in and ponds to cool off in. 

“I think that is the most wonderful gift for those bears,” said Amy Walker, one of many enrolled members of the tribe who advocated for a better habitat for the bears. “I was glad that they got a decent place.”

Prior to moving half way across the country, the 11 bears — two Asiatic black bears, three grizzly bears and six American black bears — lived most, if not all, of their lives in concrete pits where visitors to Chief Saunooke Bear Park would pay to see them.

Over the course of two years, the establishment had racked up about a dozen violations from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, including failure to maintain clean enclosures and provide proper nourishment. After failing to correct the violations, the operations were suspended earlier this year and the owners fined $5,000.

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The bear zoos in Cherokee had been a source of controversy in the past, including the target of protests and a negative publicity campaign by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. The release of an undercover video by PETA showing the deplorable conditions came about the same time as the park’s closure and kicked off a new firestorm in Cherokee regarding the future of the bear zoos. Enrolled members asked the Tribal Council to ban all bear zoos from the reservation, but after much discussion on the issue, tribal council decided not to take action. Currently, there are still two operating, though one of those has more natural enclosures and not concrete pits.

Walker said she and other enrolled members have not given up the fight though.

“I won’t give up on the bears. We just believe it’s going to have to be done in a different way,” Walker said.

PETA still plans to keep at it as well until all the bear zoos are closed.

“These pits are an affront to the Eastern Band of Cherokee,” said Jeff Kerr, general counsel for PETA. “They are contrary to the Cherokee way of respecting life.”

PETA has protested against the living conditions of bears in bear zoos, particularly in Chief Saunooke Bear Park, for years and have finally tasted a victory.

“We are just thrilled, and our hearts sing with joy,” Kerr said.

PETA actually contacted the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary to see if the nonprofit could take the 11 bears from Chief Saunooke Bear Park, said Richard Gilbreth, executive director of the sanctuary. The nonprofit just so happened to have eight free acres of land. It just needed to build the enclosures.

“They have adapted extremely well to their new environment,” Gilbreth said. “It’s a learning process for them.”

Rescued bears will sometimes confine themselves to one area and slowly start investigating more territory as time passes. Some of the bears still walk in circles out of habit despite having ample room.

Now that the bears are moved, the biggest obstacle is money. It will cost between $5,000 and $6,000 a month to care for all 11 bears. People can adopt one for $125 a month or make a smaller donation.

“There are a lot of people out there who will help you and give you $5,” Gilbreth said. “I appreciate every dime.”

Others also donate meat or produce to feed the animals. To donate or find out other ways to help, visit

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