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Cherokee bear zoo fined and suspended over violations

fr bearpitsFederal regulators temporarily suspended operations at Cherokee bear zoo and fined its owners $5,000 for repeated animal welfare violations.

PETA protests bear zoos in Cherokee on heels of undercover video

fr petabearDespite being warned not to return to Cherokee without tribal permission, animal rights activists gathered once again last Saturday in front of Chief Saunooke Bear Park waving signs and even donning a bear costume to protest the allegedly inhumane condition of the bear pits.

Bear zoo charged with violation of Animal Welfare Act

fr bearzoosFederal inspectors have upped the ante for a controversial bear zoo on the Cherokee Reservation, this time opening an official complaint against the operation that could face large fines or even be shut down.

PETA sues for documents involving bear pits

People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has sued the Bureau of Indian Affairs for failing to hand over what it maintains are public documents under the Freedom of Information Act pertaining to the lease agreements for bear exhibitors in Cherokee.

PETA maintains about 30 bears are kept in what it characterizes as roadside zoos “in cramped, barren enclosures with no opportunity to express natural behavior.”

PETA maintains the Bureau of Indian Affairs is responsible for managing the lease agreements governing Indian trust lands — including those in Cherokee — and is required by federal law to release these agreements. The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court.

Cherokee bear pits have been the target of PETA over the past two years, from sidewalk protests to billboard campaigns, as well as vocal appeals to tribal government to shut down the attractions.

Violations stack up against Cherokee bear zoo

Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Cherokee has been cited with federal violations for the treatment and condition of captive bears kept in pits for viewing by tourists.

It marks the fourth federal inspection of the bear zoo in two years where violations were noted.

Also: read the citation

In July, two tourists were bitten by bears over the course of a week at Chief Saunooke Bear Park. One case involved a 9-year-old girl who was bitten on the hand — coincidentally in front of a federal inspector who happened to be there that day.

The incident likely prompted a follow-up inspection in August, where four federal violations were documented.

“For facilities where they don’t have a lot of concerns, they normally only do one once a year,” said Lisa Wathne, a captive exotic animal specialist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “I suspect because they saw the girl get bit, they did another inspection very shortly thereafter.”

The violations documented by a federal inspector during the August visit include:

• Failing to provide veterinary care for a bear with a broken tooth. “Broken teeth can be very painful and can lead to gum and jaw infections,” the inspector wrote. The bear handler said he was not aware of the tooth condition. The inspector noted that daily observations are required to ensure the bears’ health and well-being.

• Two bears were being tormented by another more aggressive bear housed in the same enclosure. One bear cornered the others, and “the bears were observed barking and swatting with open mouth aggression. The bear handler indicated this aggression was normal for them.” One bear had scars on both his hind legs. The owner had been verbally warned before by inspectors that the bears should be separated if the aggression became worse or created the possibility of injuries.

• A metal water bowl had been damaged by a bear, resulting in a piece of torn metal sharp enough to hurt a bear’s paw.

• Paper trays holding bear food were being re-used, creating the potential for contamination from old food caked on them. Tourists are allowed to feed the bears, a diet that at one point included Lucky Charms cereal that are against federal diet regulations.

“Anyway you look at it, this facility is failing miserably,” said Wathne. “PETA maintains it has to be shut down for the sake of the animals and for the sake of public safety.”

Wathne said the bear zoo could continue to rack up violations for years before USDA would shut it down, however.

Animal-rights activists confronted the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians over the bear pits last year, calling on the tribal government to shut them down. Bob Barker, the famed game show host and advocate for animal rights, came to Cherokee and met with Chief Michell Hicks and tribal council. But tribal leaders maintain there is nothing wrong with the bear zoos and rebuked PETA for its tactics.

This summer, PETA launched a billboard campaign advising tourists not to go to the bear zoos in Cherokee.

No one could be immediately reached at Chief Saunooke Bear Park prior to press deadline.

Barker visits WNC in campaign to help bears

Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians didn’t have to duke it out with other contestants or so much as wager a guess, but somehow, they got the price exactly right. On Tuesday, July 28, the tribe won a visit from long-time game show host Bob Barker. The legendary host of “The Price is Right” was in the area for a meeting with Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the plight of bears kept in three small zoos on the reservation.

Meeting the chief had been a goal of Barker’s since last month, when he announced he had teamed with animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to protest the conditions of the Cherokee bear zoos.

Barker’s meeting took place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, just as this paper went to press. Before the meeting, Barker planned to visit all three zoos to check out the conditions. He said the zoos would be his only stop on his trip to Western North Carolina.

“I’m just going to visit the bear zoos. I won’t have time to do anything else, unfortunately, because I think the rest of Cherokee would be much more enjoyable than seeing these bears,” Barker said.

Following the meeting with Hicks, Barker will hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, to discuss his visit to the zoos and his meeting with the chief.

Barker hoped during his visit to convince the owners of the three zoos to release the bears and allow PETA officials to transport them to a sanctuary in Northern California at no cost. Barker estimated that about 30 bears would make the trip.

“They have a place for the bears to live in the way nature intended and never again have to entertain tourists or anybody else,” said Barker.

Barker and PETA have decried the conditions at Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land, saying the bears are housed inadequately in concrete pens with little stimulation.

Whether Barker’s campaign will have any impact on the practice of keeping caged black bears in Cherokee is up to the Tribal Council. Though federal regulations allow the keeping of bears, the council has the authority to pass legislation outlawing the practice on the reservation.

However, that kind of change may be slow to come. Tribal Council Chairman Mike Parker said he was not aware of Barker’s upcoming visit or his meeting with the chief, though Hicks had said tribal council would likely be present. In fact, Parker said he had never heard about Barker’s campaign with PETA.

“I don’t remember or recall ever talking about it,” Parker said. “My guess is that [the zoos] comply with federal regulations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.”

Prior to the meeting, Hicks said he anticipated speaking with Barker and PETA representatives about the bears and listening to their advice, then getting feedback on tribal law and the bear zoos’ compliance with federal regulations.

“We’ll kind of see how it goes from there,” Hicks said. “It’s going to be interesting — obviously, a lot of people know Bob Barker.”

Parker said Barker was taking the correct approach in asking to meet with the chief. He cautioned against forcing the issue.

“If he’s going to talk to the chief, that’s good, but to come in and try to force an issue, I don’t necessarily agree with that. That approach has been taken with us before and had some disastrous effects, so we’re kind of leery of that approach,” Parker said.

Barker said he would ultimately like to see Tribal Council outlaw the practice of caging bears, and “never have another bear on exhibition in Cherokee.”

Barker said he thinks, overall, the campaign has been a success.

“I think there has been an awareness of it, but that nobody was speaking up. The support has been so forthcoming since we’ve got into it and it’s been publicized,” Barker said.

The Naturalist's Corner

PETA - Cherokee bears part deaux

I have been watching the story in Smoky Mountain News regarding PETA and the caged bears in Cherokee with some interest and have a couple of observations.

First, reporter Julia Merchant states in her piece “PETA targets bear zoos in national campaign” (SMN 7/1/09) that PETA, “... only recently got wind of the practice ...” and noted that, “... the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common.”

The practice of exploiting bears was, indeed, once more common. Bears chained in even worse (than current) conditions along roadsides and Tuffy Truesdale’s Victor — the wrestling bear — were prominent attractions. This treatment, however, did not escape the attention of PETA (People for the ethical treatment of animals) nor, for that matter, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).

There is no reason Merchant should know this bit of history because it happened long before she came to the region and before Smoky Mountain News came into being. From the mid to late 1980s and perhaps into the early 1990s, area animal activists spearheaded an effort to end the practice of roadside bears. PETA and HSUS offered support and provided national exposure. In fact, PETA helped organize a demonstration advocating an end to this practice. The demonstration drew a large crowd of supporters. I would estimate more than 100 of us gathered on Great Smoky Mountains National Park property just outside Cherokee’s northern boundary — we couldn’t get a permit for tribal property.

The demonstration was a culmination of months of activism — gathering names on petitions and speaking with tribal leaders. I was part of a small contingent that met with then Principal Chief Jonathan Taylor. Taylor welcomed us graciously, listened attentively, asked pertinent questions regarding animal regulations and, I believe took our message to heart. But we weren’t the only voices heard.

One of the few records I could find regarding the issue — a few paragraphs in the Sept. 17, 1989, Wilmington Morning Star reported that Taylor noted the tribe was receiving, “... about 2,500 letters a year protesting the plight of the caged bears.”

I also recall that the bears had much support from tribal members. Tribal members made up a large percentage of the demonstrators advocating on behalf of the bears. They were also speaking up in tribal council meetings and within their communities.

Cherokee myth exalts the bear with a myriad of fables and for many enrolled members the bear holds a place of respect and admiration. PETA and/or Bob Barker may spark interest in the plight of Cherokee’s bears, but tribal council listens to enrolled members. Yonas’ plight rests, ultimately, in the hands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. I am sure Principal Chief Michell Hicks and today’s tribal council are every bit as receptive as Chief Taylor and his government were. I am also sure the spirit of Yonas is as revered today as it was in the 1980s and that the Cherokee people will do the right thing by their bears.

Cherokee could do better regulating bear zoos

“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”

— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks


The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.

According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.

The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.

Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.

The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.

The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.

Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.

PETA targets bear zoos in national campaign

Recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found itself the whipping boy of an unlikely opponent.

Much to the tribe’s surprise, the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released a statement calling for an end to the practice of keeping caged bears in Cherokee. The statement named three small zoos as the culprits, the last holdouts of a practice that was once common in the area’s early days as a tourist destination.

“Tell Cherokee to end cruel bear pits,” the release said, citing the zoos — Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, the Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land — for keeping “neurotic” bears in “grossly inhumane conditions.” PETA had even gotten a celebrity to sign on to the cause — none other than Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right” and a Native American from the Sioux tribe. In a letter, Barker requested a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the practice.

PETA’s campaign took Cherokee officials off guard. Suddenly, Hicks’ personal email was flooded with 650 messages from angry PETA supporters — so many he had to block the address they were being sent from.

“I just think it was pretty disturbing how PETA approached this issue, when one didn’t even exist,” Hicks says.

That’s precisely where Hicks and the PETA organization disagree.

PETA has waged something of an undercover operation in Cherokee in recent months since it was alerted to the bears’ existence by Barker (see related article). The group has traveled to the region with experts to study and film the caged bears at the three zoos.

PETA says it found the bears housed in cramped, concrete pits with few toys for stimulation. They denounced the feeding of the bears by visitors who are given small snack trays containing lettuce, apples and bread at two of the zoos to toss down to the animals. The group is convinced that there is indeed a problem.

“Neurotic behavior is evident in these bears,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s captive animal division. “You see a lot of crying, whimpering, pacing, walking in circles, and fighting.”

Barker is fully on board with calling attention to the bear’s plight, he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.

“I do not purport to be an expert on bears, but I’m impressed with the experts who’ve seen the bears themselves and seen the films,” said Barker. “All of them agree that the bears are not being adequately cared for, and that they are showing signs of stress. They are not healthy.”

Barker wants to arrange a meeting with Hicks to discuss the bear exhibits. Hicks said he was amenable to discussing the situation with Barker, but as of press time no meeting had been arranged.


Out with the old

Though PETA only recently got wind of the practice, the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common. Sitting outside of the Tribal Grounds coffee shop, Eastern Band member Dennis Watty points across the street.

“I remember there was a cage right over there,” Watty says. “There were bears in cages all along the side of the road.”

Jeff Goss is the owner of the Goss Agency marketing firm, which works with the tribe. As he explains, the practice started to take off when more and more tourists flocked to the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The poverty-stricken Cherokee were desperate for income, and many capitalized on the stream of visitors passing through the area. The Wild West, cowboys and Indians themes dominated pop culture at the time, so the Cherokee adopted a fittingly rugged persona, building teepees (though that wasn’t a part of their culture) and displaying native black bears to gawking tourists.

“The teepees and bears were there simply to make a little bit of money to survive as tourists were coming through to the Park. They had no real source of income,” Goss says. “(Tourists) didn’t want to see the real Cherokee — they wanted to see what they saw in the movies.”

But the bears often suffered as a result of the practice. The animals were sometimes lured from the wild into the trunks of cars by the smell of bacon, remembers writer Gary Carden of Sylva. They were then taken to live in small cages where tourists were free to feed them.

“It was definitely inhumane,” Carden remembers. “The bears were frequently sick and malformed from living on a diet of candy and junk food.”

The popularity of the caged bears has dwindled in recent years, however, as Cherokee has worked to redefine itself and its image. The Goss Agency was put in charge of the tribe’s marketing plan five years ago.

“There’s been a move and concentrated effort to establish the rich, authentic Cherokee culture,” Goss says. “As a result, that’s shedding that image.”

The tribe’s marketing campaign, emphasizing its natural and cultural features, has been wildly successful. PETA advocates say the continued existence of caged bears is a huge step back.

“This is truly a relic,” says Leahy. “I don’t think there are too many other places in the country that still maintain any sort of wildlife in these archaic pits. They really seem to be locked in some 1950s time warp.”

Barker says the tribe has so much else to offer — the mountains, museums, cultural exhibits, friendly residents, and the casino — that the bear exhibits are obsolete.

“Bear pits may have been a big attraction at one time, but are now seen as an embarrassment,” Barker said.

Goss is skeptical. He said he’s never heard concerns about the caged bears come up in any of his research, part of which involves asking visitors about negative perceptions or barriers to the experience.

“There’s so little of it, and it’s so insignificant. What does exist, there’s little awareness of it,” Goss says. “For the few people that might stumble onto that while in Cherokee, that’s not the overall impression they take away.”


“They’re family”

The Cherokee Bear Zoo, a nondescript building which houses a fudge and ice cream shop along with a variety of exotic animals, is one of the only remaining places exhibiting bears. Caretaker Norbert Santiago is incensed at PETA’s accusations. He’s looked after the zoo’s 10 black and grizzly bears for a decade, and considers them to be family.

“We take good care of them,” he repeats several times. “They are happy here. This is home.”

The bears are housed in pairs in pens with four cinderblock walls and a concrete floor. The facilities are sparsely furnished, with a tree limb, a couple rocks, a small piece of cloth that provides a square of shade, and a pool with cold water piped in directly from the river. The bears don’t have much to play with, except one another, and are kept amused by visitors chucking down pieces of lettuce, apple and bread. Like dogs, the bears beg and even do tricks for their food.

It’s a far cry from the grassy, treed, expansive environment the animals would experience in the wild, but then again, these hardly seem like wild bears. In fact, none of them has ever lived anywhere else, Santiago says.

“They’re bred and raised in captivity from the time they’re babies. None of them have lived in the wild,” he says. “They wouldn’t survive.”

Santiago calls the bears “our pets,” and indeed, that’s how the bears seem. They even respond to their names — a large grizzly named Elvis lumbers over when Santiago calls for him.

Santiago maintains that the bears are content.

“I know they’re happy. If they weren’t happy, they would show it,” he says.

In fact, PETA alleges that the bears do show signs of unhappiness, including whining and crying out. But Santiago says the bears don’t do that, and accuses PETA of “making things up. I don’t see them crying,” he says.

Indeed, it’s difficult to picture Santiago willingly committing the abuse PETA alleges on animals he refers to as his family.


Room to roam

Still, PETA says that the bear’s surroundings at the three facilities aren’t adequate.

“Bears are extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity,” says Leahy. “They’re so intelligent, so curious, such active animals that you need to provide with a lot of diversity and space. They need opportunities to forage, dig, and nest, and things to climb on.”

The WNC Nature Center in Asheville, one of the only other regional facilities that exhibit bears, takes a different approach to housing its animals, striving to provide them with an environment similar to their wild habitat.

“To be honest, bears are a challenge even for multi-million dollar zoos to keep in captivity,” says Henry Bulluck, animal curator for the Nature Center.

Bulluck says that bears can develop physical ticks when housed in small concrete cages with little stimulation. To prevent this, the Nature Center keeps its bears in a one-acre facility with natural ground, grass, trees, a large pool, and plenty of logs to crawl on. Throughout the day, the bears are given different enrichment devices.

But there’s a major difference between the bear zoos in Cherokee and the WNC Nature Center — namely, the guidelines each facility must follow.


Playing by ear

Every facility in the country that houses captive animals for exhibition must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the Animal Welfare Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act requires captive animals to have shelter, food, water, a sanitary environment, protection from extreme temperatures, and adequate veterinary care. Just what defines those things is largely up to the USDA inspector of a facility. Animal advocates have criticized the act for being too lax and vague.

“One of our frustrations is that the Federal Animal Welfare Act only establishes bare minimum guidelines,” says Leahy. “Unfortunately, we would consider the minimum requirements to be inhumane.”

One of the major downfalls of the Animal Welfare Act is that “there are no explicit regulations and standards that address the complex needs of bears,” Leahy says.

To encourage higher standards, the WNC Nature Center completed a strenuous accreditation process through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Participation in the association is voluntary, and demonstrates a more stringent level of commitment to animal welfare.

“It took a lot of work to become a part of it, but we want to show we’re following the best principle of animal care,” Bulluck says.

The tribe’s Cherokee Code, which the Cherokee zoos must comply with in addition to USDA guidelines, puts forth specific regulations on the handling of bears in captivity. Still, the requirements are basic. Cages for bears must be 8 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and include a pool and a den. Cages must be kept clean and shaded during the hottest parts of summer days.

So as sparse as the bears’ accommodations may appear at the Cherokee zoos, they’re within the law — which means there’s little PETA or anyone else can do to keep the facilities from operating.

“Tribal law allows for them to have captive animals, as long as they’re in compliance with tribal law and USDA standards,” said Hicks. “As far as I’m concerned, our businesses are within compliance.”

The fact that the bear zoos comply with existing USDA and tribal regulations matters little to PETA, an organization recognized for its often-zealous campaigns. One of PETA’s best-known tactics involves throwing fake blood on people wearing animal fur.

Over the top? Maybe a little, says Barker, but PETA knows how to get things done.

“I understand they (PETA) have been criticized as being radical on occasion, but I also know them to be one of the most effective, productive organizations in the country,” Barker says. “In a case such as these bears, no organization could help more than PETA.”


Slap on the wrist

Yet even PETA is limited in what it can do for the bears — a real change in the practice may require broader, institutional change. Currently, even when the zoos don’t meet regulations, it appears little is done about it by the officials inspecting the facilities.

USDA inspectors check up on the Cherokee bear zoos once a year, as they do with all other captive animal facilities. Inspectors have cited both Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and Santa’s Land for numerous citations involving bears in recent years (the Cherokee Bear Zoo has received citations for its care of other animals, but none involving its bears).

For instance, in 2008, the inspector found that the Trading Post did not have adequate barriers to prevent public contact with the bears. The facility received several citations the previous year, in 2007, for what the inspector described as “the overwhelming nauseating foul odor of ammonia and feces,” dim lighting, failure to clean the cages, and an inadequate feeding tube that posed an injury risk to the bear cubs.

Santa’s Land also got written up in 2008 for unleashing bear cubs during public feedings and posing a threat to public safety, as well as for a jagged feeding tube. In 2006, the park was docked for failing to have a regular veterinarian, inadequate shelter, and improper handling of the bear cubs to prevent contact with public.

Despite numerous violations, the facilities continue to operate. Santa’s Land did not respond to numerous phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News visited Saunooke Trading Post and tried to contact managers in charge of the animals but was unsuccessful.

“Not only should USDA regulations be stronger, they should be stringently enforced,” says Barker.

Barker says the USDA lacks the staff to adequately follow through with the citations inspectors issued.

“There are so many animals being mistreated across the country, and they don’t have enough USDA inspectors to keep up with them,” Barker said. “Now that we’ve brought attention to this, hopefully the USDA will do something.”

How Bob Barker took on the Eastern Band

Bob Barker?!

The involvement of famed television host Bob Barker in the fight to end the Cherokee bear exhibits took many by surprise.

During a phone interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Barker explained that he first became aware of the bears through his long-time friend, Florida Congressman Bill Young. Young stopped through Cherokee with his family on a trip from Florida to Washington, D.C., and visited the bear exhibits. The Youngs weren’t impressed, to say the least — Young’s wife was practically in tears when the family left.

“He and his family were aghast at the condition of the bears. When he got home, he promptly called me,” Barker says.

Barker has long been an advocate of animal rights, ending each episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to “spay and neuter your pets.” Barker is well acquainted with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, and informed her of what Young had seen.

“She promptly sent a couple people down there and they reported that some of the conditions were worse than had been reported,” says Barker.

Barker agreed to put his name to the cause.

“Mr. Barker has been a longtime animal rights advocate and we’re glad he’s taken an interest in this. It’s something that has been the source of a high number of complaints to PETA,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s Captive Animals Division.

When PETA released a nationally circulated statement June 8 calling for an end to the bear exhibits, it was accompanied by a letter from Bob Barker requesting a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks. The statement made note of Barker’s letter.

What happened next is a bit hard to decipher. Hicks says that the supposed letter mentioned in PETA’s statement was never actually sent to him.

“That was a big lie on their part,” Hicks says of PETA.

Hicks says he had to call PETA to obtain the letter, at which point they sent him a faxed copy that wasn’t signed. He then requested a stamped, signed letter, which he finally received.

“That was a big farce, was all it was,” says Hicks.

Barker disagrees, maintaining that the press release with the letter followed an earlier press release PETA had put out on the issue.

By last week, on Wednesday, June 24, PETA had still not heard back from Hicks’ office about setting up the requested meeting, though they continued to hope a call would come.

“We think the solution is going to require an opportunity to sit down with the chief and other members of the tribal council and discuss improvements that can be made for these bears,” Leahy said.

When The Smoky Mountain News spoke with Hicks on June 25, he told the paper he had still not responded to Barker’s request. Asked if he would indeed agree to it, Hicks said, “I will absolutely honor a meeting. I have no reason not to do that.”

Later that day, Barker confirmed that he had not heard back from Hicks. The SMN informed Barker of Hicks’ willingness to meet.

“Maybe we can get together then,” said Barker. He added, “I’d come down and meet with them. I’ll call PETA and arrange a trip to Cherokee.”

Barker said he looks forward to meeting with the chief in an effort to find some common ground on the issue of bear exhibits.

“I want to smoke the peace pipe with him,” Barker said.

— Julia Merchant

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