Cherokee Grizzly Bears Come One Step Closer to Leaving Horrible Zoo

Four unlucky grizzly bears spend their days in concrete pits as unwilling animal attractions at a second-rate “zoo” in western North Carolina. But today, there’s renewed hope that they might soon leave the depressing confines of Cherokee Bear Zoo and Exotic Animals.

Grizzly bears are considered a “threatened” species under the Endangered Species Act. When Peggy Hill and Amy Walker, two tribal elders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, visited the zoo one day back in 2013, they were appalled by the bears’ living conditions.

The poor animals are held in concrete pits without features, like vegetation and shade, to resemble heir natural habitat. The bears seem listless, pacing endlessly in their small enclosure.

And their chief entertainment appears to be begging for apples and dry bread from tourists. It’s heart-wrenching.

Because the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians holds bears in high regard spiritually and culturally, Walker and Hill decided they had to do something. The two women sued the zoo, alleging that the conditions the bears are forced to endure constitute an unlawful “taking” under the ESA.

Unfortunately, the district court held that the zoo did not “harm” or “harass” the bears as those terms are used in the ESA, meaning that there was no “taking” under the act. The court dismissed the case.

But tribal elders appealed. A federal appeals court decided in August 2017 that it couldn’t agree with the district court’s analysis.

Specifically, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reversed the decision, stating:

Of note, the [district] court based its conclusion that the Zoo did not harass its bears entirely on its determination that the Zoo’s animal husbandry practices complied with applicable standards under the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) . . . . The court explicitly declined to consider whether the Zoo’s practices complied with “generally accepted” animal husbandry practices, despite language in the relevant regulation referencing a “generally accepted” standard.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s ESA regulations define “[h]arass” as “an intentional or negligent act or omission which creates the likelihood of injury to wildlife by annoying it to such an extent as to significantly disrupt normal behavioral patterns which include, but are not limited to, breeding, feeding, or sheltering.” (50 C.F.R. § 17.3).

bears in pit

Photo credit: “Stop Abusing the Cherokee Bears” Facebook page

This regulation contains an exclusion for captive animals, however. And how to interpret this exclusion is at the heart of the Fourth Circuit’s reversal. The court held:

The district court interpreted this exclusion to excuse animal husbandry practices that are compliant with applicable AWA standards, without regard to whether those practices are “generally accepted.” Plaintiffs urge us to reject this interpretation, explaining that the exclusion can only fairly be interpreted to excuse animal husbandry practices that are both (1) “generally accepted” and (2) AWA compliant. We agree with Plaintiffs’ position on this matter.

However, this decision doesn’t mean the bears will now be moved to better surroundings. It only indicates that instead of being dismissed, the case must return to the district court for reconsideration.

Nevertheless, this is a positive development for the bears, who still have a shot at better living conditions. Perhaps they might one day be released from the zoo entirely.

“This ruling is a win for the four grizzly bears kept in the archaic and virtually barren concrete pits at the Cherokee Bear Zoo and for the Endangered Species Act, which provides vital protection for these threatened animals held in captivity,” the Coalition for the Cherokee Bears explained.

bear in pit

Photo credit: “Stop Abusing the Cherokee Bears” Facebook page

“These grizzly bears should be exploring a vast, natural, habitat at a reputable wildlife sanctuary and not begging for food from tourists from their pits. The Fourth Circuit’s ruling brings them one step closer to this goal,” the Coalition added.

Hill and Walker’s attorney, James S. Whitlock, takes a sober but hopeful position on this case.

“This is not a victory yet,” Whitlock told The One Feather. “It’s certainly a step back in the right direction. We’ll have to see how things unfold. We remain committed to doing what we initially set out to do and that’s to have the four grizzly bears removed from the pits.”

When roadside zoos won’t do the right thing, it’s up to individuals and animal protection groups to step in and force the issue. Here, with the help of amicus briefs filed by the Fund for Animals and the Humane Society of the United States, two tribal elders took on the Cherokee Bear Zoo.

With luck and a more careful reading of the ESA, perhaps the district court will render a decision that enables these grizzlies to move to a sanctuary. The bears need a home that cares more for their daily happiness than this sad little North Carolina zoo ever will.

Photo credit: Stop Abusing the Cherokee Bears Facebook page

99 comments

Judy t
Judy t4 days ago

The Chief Saunooke Park Zoo has recently been closed down and the bears were transferred to the beautiful Wild Animal Sanctuary in Colorado where they are now living out the rest of their lives with freedom, dignity and extra suburb proper pampering care. It is the 21st century and to keep bears (and all other animals) in such deprived inhumane conditions at roadside zoos in today's modern times is shocking, appalling and uncalled for when there are beautiful sanctuaries where tourists can go and view the animals in a healthy natural environment, living a good healthy happy natural humane life. No more living in a small concrete pit where the owners deprive them of food so tourists for their entertainment, can feed them junk food for which they have to beg for. The bears can't even hibernate! They are deprived of everything that is essential to them. The bear's "spirits" are broken from their horrid living conditions. Filthy one stop roadside zoos are now taboo. The modern public no longer wants to see animals living in cruel captivity in which the owners call entertainment and will profit from the bear's suffering. I don't understand what is taking so long in closing down the Cherokee Park, a bygone era bear pit zoo. These physically and mentally sick bears should have been transferred a long time ago to a sanctuary. The Cherokee Park Zoo along with Santa's Land Zoo in NC need to close down their doors for good putting an end to bears being held in cruel inhumane

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Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

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Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

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Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

SEND
Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

SEND
Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

SEND
Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

SEND
Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

SEND
Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

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Mike R
Mike R7 days ago

Hope so

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