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Cherokee bear zoo debate roars on

As the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ leaders mull the fate of bear zoos on the reservation, representatives from two of Cherokee’s three bear zoos have said they are being unfairly harried because of one bad egg.


Federal regulators closed Chief Saunooke Bear Zoo in Cherokee last month amid a myriad of animal welfare violations, but animal rights activists and some enrolled members of the Eastern Band have denounced all bear zoos — including Cherokee Bear Zoo and Santa’s Land.

Collette Coggins, an enrolled member and owner of Cherokee Bear Zoo, has cried foul after her establishment was lumped in with Chief Saunooke Bear Zoo.

“We take a lot better care of our bears than some people take of their children,” Coggins said.

But she did not claim her bear zoo is the picture of perfection. Cherokee Bear Zoo’s 10 bears live in concrete pits, which have been decried by critics as cruel. The bears have logs to scratch and chew on, but there is no natural vegetation. Although Cherokee Bear Zoos is up to snuff when it comes to federal regulations, Coggins admitted that simply meeting standards isn’t enough.

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After nearly two decades of showcasing bears in concrete pits for paying tourists, Coggins acknowledged sensibilities over what constitutes an adequate environment for the bears has changed.

“We realize now that they need to be upgraded,” Coggins said. “We want to do better.”

Coggins and her husband Barry have proposed plans to build a multi-million dollar bear “sanctuary,” as Coggins refers to it. It’s hard to create a better environment on her current site, however, so she began looking for other land to relocate the bear zoo to. 

The couple has asked for Tribal Council to lease them empty tribally owned land near Cherokee Phoenix Theatres to create a new home for the bears. Coggins wants an on-staff veterinarian, a live birthing center, educational and cultural information, and plenty of space and natural plant life.

“I want it to be more grass, more plants,” Coggins said.

The Cogginses brought their proposal before Tribal Council in February and again in March. But the council has tabled the matter until further discussions can be had.

Coggins and Kenneth Howell, a representative for Santa’s Land, both fought back against claims that their animals are mistreated and not fed properly. The public is allowed to feed the bears lettuce, bread and apples, but the bear zoos give them other sources of nutrition, both in season items like nuts and pumpkins and the bear-specific food Mazuri.

“We monitor all the protein intake, all the vitamin intake,” Coggins said.

Howell, who has worked with the animals at Santa’s Land for 13 years, told Tribal Council that the bear zoo controversy is a case of one bad egg spoiling the bunch.

“That seems unfair to me,” Howell said.

At Santa’s Land, the shaded animal enclosures are improved every year, he said, and include trees and other natural vegetation for the animals.

“We have continually upgraded our park and our facilities,” Howell said. “These animals go into bigger and better facilities each year.”

Santa’s Land is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture after a capuchin monkey escaped its enclosure in 2007 and bit a child. That same year, it was also fined $10,312 for not providing adequate shelter from inclement weather, for not properly monitoring the nutritional needs of its large cats, lack of strong housing and adequate veterinary care for a few of its animals. Only one violation — lack of proper shelter from the elements — specifically mentions bears.

U.S. Department of Agriculture inspectors have never investigated or fined Cherokee Bear Zoo for any violations. But the Animal Legal Defense Fund sent a letter to the Cogginses Monday indicating the organization’s plan to sue them for violations of the Endangered Species Act.

Cherokee Bear Zoo has four grizzly bears, which are considered a “threatened” species. And by keeping the grizzlies in concrete pits and denying them “everything that is natural and important to them,” the Animal Legal Defense Fund claims, the Cherokee Bear Zoo is violating the act.

“Bears belong in the wild or in reputable sanctuaries, not in barren pits,” ALDF Executive Director Stephen Wells said in a press statement. “The Endangered Species Act is designed to protect grizzlies from harm and harassment — and that’s exactly what the bears at Cherokee Bear Zoo face every day.”

Animal rights activists around the U.S. have questioned the humanity of the concrete pit bear zoos for years, calling for tribal leaders to shut them down. Their cries picked up momentum earlier this year when the animal rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals released an undercover video of Chief Saunooke Bear Zoo in Cherokee.

The video showed bears in concrete pits gnawing on metal bars until their teeth snapped and employees at the bear zoo making derogatory statements about enrolled members of the Eastern Band.

A couple of enrolled members asked tribal leaders to revoke the zoos’ business licenses and force them to shut down immediately. Tribal Council has not yet made a decision on the matter.

“Those bears are suffering,” said enrolled member Peggy Hill-Kerbow.

However, Tribal Council members agreed that if the zoos were closed, the bears could not be suddenly moved elsewhere. Planning would be involved. 

“There is no timeline. You have to give people time,” said Tribal Council member Tommeye Saunooke of Painttown.

After hearing Coggins’ plan, one enrolled member who spoke out previously against bear zoos said she liked the idea.

“Collette (Coggins) is willing to put them back in a natural environment. I will support her,” said enrolled member Amy Walker.

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