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Cherokee Bear Zoo in legal crosshairs

Two enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians plan to sue the owners of the Cherokee Bear Zoo if they don’t make some substantial changes to their grizzly bear habitats.


Cherokee Bear Zoo owners Barry and Collette Coggins house four federally protected grizzly bears in concrete pit enclosures. Peggy Hill and Amy Walker believe that the “tiny, virtually barren concrete pits” violate the U.S. Endangered Species Act and have decided to take action.

“We love our rich heritage, but tormenting bears and displaying them like unfeeling objects violates not only our reverence for nature but also U.S. law,” said Walker in a news release. “They must be moved from this despicable facility to a place where they’ll be cared for, not abused and neglected.”

James Whitlock, a partner at the Asheville-based environmental law firm Davis & Whitlock, mailed a “letter of intent to sue” to the Cogginses on behalf of Hill and Walker. A copy of the letter was also sent the secretary of the Department of the Interior and the director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

When filing a federal lawsuit, the letter of intent to sue is a required first step, giving a 60-day window for grievances to be fixed.

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“If the conditions are not corrected in 60 days, we will file suit,” Whitlock said. “With grizzly bears being a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, there are certain protection built in for them, and we don’t feel the living conditions for them at the Cherokee Bear Zoos comply.”

In addition to alleging that the living conditions of the grizzly bears constitute mistreatment under the Endangered Species Act, the letter questions what the Cherokee Bear Zoo does with grizzly bear cubs born there. 

“They are there for certain parts of the year, and then, they are gone,” Whitlock said.

It is illegal to sell a protected species.

The Cherokee Bear Zoo is one of three establishments in Cherokee that have come under fire in recent years for displaying bears to tourists. One of them, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, was shut down earlier this year after it repeatedly violated federal animal welfare regulations.

Federal inspectors have never fined the Cherokee Bear Zoo, though it has come under continual criticism from animal rights activists. Coggins has publicly admitted the concrete pit enclosures are not the ideal environment for the bears and has talked about building new natural habitats.

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