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Bear zoo case will go to appeal

fr bearsAfter a federal judge ruled that the Cherokee Bear Zoo isn’t breaking the law with its treatment of the grizzly bears in its care, the two Cherokee women who had sued the bear zoo in the first place are appealing the decision.

“The Endangered Species Act prohibits harming and harassing protected animals, and that should include stopping the deprivation and suffering on display in the tiny concrete pits at the Cherokee Bear Zoo,” said Amy Walker, a plaintiff along with Peggy Hill. “These animals need and deserve to be moved to a large, naturalistic habitat at a reputable sanctuary, and we’ll continue to push for the court to make that happen.”

While U.S. District Judge Martin Reidinger wrote in his March 30 opinion that the pits are “archaic” and that the “general consensus” is that they are “not ideal,” he ruled that the conditions weren’t bad enough to entail a “taking” under the Endangered Species Act. Walker and Hill had argued that the bears were being “harmed” and “harassed,” two situations that would qualify as a taking. But Reidinger said that “harm” means the wildlife is being actually killed or injured and that “harass” means that the facility falls below the minimum standards of the federal Animal Welfare Act. Neither is true, he said. 

However, according to a press release from the Coalition for Cherokee Bears, the appeal will reiterate that keeping endangered grizzlies in the pits violates the ESA’s prohibition against harming, harassing and wounding protected animals. 

According to Brittany Peet, deputy director of captive animal law enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, the appeal isn’t frivolous. 

“I think there is a great chance for this case on appeal,” she said when Reidinger’s decision first came out. 

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The bear zoo, which includes about 35 animals including black bears, monkeys, lemurs, goats and a tiger in addition to the four grizzlies that are the subject of the lawsuit, has been the subject of litigation since 2013, when the elders first filed their suit. In the same year, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals also filed a lawsuit pushing for stricter standards for the bears’ living conditions. PETA has also supported a national campaign to shut down concrete bear pits across the country. 

Collette Coggins, co-owner of the bear zoo, said she doesn’t appreciate being characterized as a heartless animal abuser. The bears are well cared for, she said. 

“I love my animals and I take very good care of my animals,” she said in a previous interview. 

In fact, Coggins said in the same interview, the bears would likely have a better place to live now if it weren’t for the lawsuit. Before it was filed, she and her husband Barry and been looking to build an expanded, more natural facility, but attorney’s fees have sidelined that effort, she said. 

After the initial court decision came down March 30, Cherokee’s Tribal Council began bear-related discussions of its own when Principal Chief Patrick Lambert introduced legislation that would outlaw concrete bear pits completely on the Qualla Boundary, requiring that enclosures be natural. Council has not yet acted on the legislation. 

The case has been sent to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia.

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