Two Cherokee tribal elders want to change the lives of four captive grizzly bears. They’re prepared to bring a lawsuit to do so.
Bucking their own tribal council’s inaction on this issue, Amy Walker and Peggy Hill, both elders of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI), say they will sue a North Carolina roadside zoo to liberate four captive grizzly bears. Walker and Hill believe the zoo is violating the federal Endangered Species Act (ESA).
The Cherokee Bear Zoo (CBZ) has operated on EBCI reservation land for almost 20 years. Currently ten bears live there, including the four grizzlies who make their home in small, depressing concrete pits. They don’t have grass or vegetation. They drink from the same water they bathe in. They’re living in bear hell.
CBZ is one of three animal zoos on EBCI land. All have been sharply criticized by animal activists, like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Animal Legal Defense Fund, over how the bears are forced to live.
The Problem With Bear Zoos
One of the three zoos, the Chief Saunooke Bear Park, was forced to close earlier this year after the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited it for repeated Animal Welfare Act violations, pulled its license and imposed a $20,000 fine. That zoo’s 11 bears went to a Texas animal sanctuary. Walker and Hill want all the bears from all three zoos sent to a sanctuary.
Grizzly bears are considered “threatened” under the ESA. Denying the protected grizzlies any sort of a normal, natural existence is a violation of federal law, say Walker, Hill and their attorney. According to their press release:
The ESA prohibits harming, harassing, or wounding protected species, but the grizzlies at CBZ are denied the opportunity to express every natural and vital behavior, including foraging, denning, hibernating, and nesting—and they’re suffering as a result.
In order to bring a citizen suit under the ESA, plaintiffs must first issue a 60-day “warning” letter, known as a Notice of Intent to Sue (NOI). After 60 days, if the alleged violations remain unresolved, a lawsuit may proceed in federal court.
In February 2013, tribal elders including Walker and Hill saw a disturbing video of the grizzlies at the CBZ. The incessant pacing and circling in the cramped pits caught their attention. Concerned, Walker and Hill asked the EBCI tribal council to do something about the bear zoos, including CBZ. Unfortunately, the council chose not to act, at least for the time being.
Bears Are Living in “An Open Concrete Grave”
The four grizzlies at the heart of this case are named Elvis, Marge, Layla and Lucky. The way they live would make any animal lover angry. Watch a YouTube video compilation of photos of the four CBZ grizzlies here:
“The Cherokee Bear Zoo is an open concrete grave for these intelligent animals and they must be moved from this despicable facility to a place where they’ll be cared for, not abused and neglected,” Walker said in a press release.
As described in the September 24th NOI, Elvis, Layla, Marge and Lucky live sad and unnatural lives at the CBZ:
- The bears are “confined to antiquated and virtually barren concrete pits which significantly disrupt [their] normal behavioral patterns”
- Because the pits are open year-round, the bears never get an opportunity to “den,” meaning they don’t get their normal winter sleep period – ever
- The pits provide no adequate shelter, leaving the bears exposed to all forms of weather all the time
- Concrete enclosures “subject these bears to a life of sensory deprivation which has a profound adverse impact” and “lack any essential environmental enrichment for the bears”
- The bears beg for food from zoo visitors in “uncontrolled public feedings”
- The bears “have been observed to constantly pace on the abrasive cement flooring of their enclosures, causing footpad trauma”
- “The size of these pits [300 to 1,300 sq. feet] is only a small fraction of the normal range of these bears in the wild, and denies the bears the opportunity to engage in normal movements and natural behaviors.”
- The bears “all exhibit behaviors demonstrating psychological harm and profound physical stress as a result of the inhumane conditions” at the CBZ
- One bear is documented to have suffered a head wound caused by “excessive head rubbing” behavior
- The bears suffer from “dental decay and/or breakage, lack of muscle tone, as well as incomplete molt of their coats rendering the coat unable to function properly to cool or warm the body.”
Collette and Barry Coggins own the Cherokee Bear Zoo. They believe they are being unfairly criticized, in part because of what happened to the Chief Saunooke Bear Park recently.
“We take a lot better care of our bears than some people take of their children,” Collette Coggins told the Smoky Mountain News in late March. However, Ms. Coggins reportedly concedes that their zoo leaves a lot to be desired. “We realize now that they need to be upgraded,” she said. “We want to do better.”
Collette and Barry Coggins asked the EBCI tribal council in February and again in March 2013 to lease them land on the reservation. They want to remedy the problems by building a multi-million dollar “bear sanctuary” that would give the bears everything they lack right now. The council, according to news reports, tabled that request pending further discussions. Progress for the bears came to a screeching halt.
Six months later, Amy Walker and Peggy Hill are not standing idly by. As the adage says, if you want something done right, do it yourself. When 60 days elapses in late November 2013, they will be free to pursue their case under the Endangered Species Act.
Bear lovers everywhere will be watching with fingers crossed for Elvis, Marge, Layla and Lucky.
Photo credit: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals