Cherokee elders move to close infamous reservation bear pits

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  September 2013: (Actually published on October 8,  2013)

CHARLOTTE,  North Carolina––Eastern Band of Cherokee tribal elders Amy Walker and Peggy Hill on September 23,  2013 served notice of intent to sue the operators of the Cherokee Bear Park for violating the federal Endangered Species Act if the resident bears are not transferred to a suitable sanctuary within 60 days. “The Cherokee Bear Zoo is an open concrete grave for these intelligent animals.  They must be moved from this despicable facility to a place where they’ll be cared for,  not abused and neglected,”  Walker told Mitch Weiss of Associated Press.

Three roadside bear pits on the Cherokee Reservation––the Cherokee Bear Zoo,  Chief Saunooke Bear Park,  and Santa’s Land––have drawn protest for decades,   including billboards posted by PETA calling the facilities “prisons” and mentioning an incident in which a nine-year-old girl was bitten while feeding a bear cub.

Sylvester Crowe, 74,  recalled that some Cherokees opposed the bear pits even when they first opened,  circa 60 years ago.  “Nobody listened to them and they gave up, and the younger generation came along and accepted it,”  Crowne told Weiss of AP.

But Hill,  72,  said “Most Cherokee people had no idea what was taking place behind the bars of these roadside zoos.”

A breathrough came,  Andrew Kasper of the Waynesville Smoky Mountain News reported,  when the USDA Animal & Plant Health Inspection Service in early 2013 fined Chief Saunooke Bear Park owner Kole Clapsaddle for repeated Animal Welfare Act violations and suspended his license to exhibit animals.

Clapsaddle in July 2013 transferred his eight black bears and three grizzlies to the 50-acre International Exotic Feline Foundation sanctuary in Boyd,  Texas.

“The eleven bears have settled happily into their new home,”  International Exotic Feline Foundation director Richard Gilbreath told ANIMAL PEOPLE.  But Gilbreath was concerned about where the bears at the other two Cherokee Reservation facilities might go.

Scarce sanctuary space

“I believe the need to find sanctuary space for bears these days is as big a problem as the need to find places for tigers and other exotic cats was in the 1990s,”  Gilbreath said.

Agreed Bobbi Brink,  founder of the Lions,  Tigers,  & Bears sanctuary in Alpine,  California,  “Richard is absolutely right.  Bears are in desperate need.  I have about 15 bears on my waiting list now that I am desperately trying to find a reputable home for.  I am in the process of building a new six-acre bear habitat,”  Brink said,  “but these things take time.  Needs are for more public awareness,  and for the public to know how to find the reputable and accredited sanctuaries,  as some so-called sanctuaries are the root of the problem.

Photo opportunities with cubs need to stop,  and habitats to help rehome some of these bears are needed.” “The problem with bears is not so much individual collectors,  as it was with big cats,”  offered American Sanctuary Association executive director Vernon Weir.  “It seems to me the problem is a lot of USDA-licensed facilities that shouldn’t have bears in the first place.  The USDA’s hands are often tied because they don’t want to be responsible for killing dozens of animals,  but they know there is no place for the animals to go.  The USDA needs to stop issuing licenses to these menageries.

But the definition is tricky––how do you license a place wanting to be a legitimate sanctuary that allows the public to visit,  even just members,  while declining to license a private zoo?  Wild animals belong in the wild, “  Weir added,  “but I don’t see any meaningful legislation passing that will stop licensing roadside zoos as long as the zoo community lobbies against it.”

Commented Global Federation of Animal Sanctuaries executive director Patty Finch,  “I wouldn’t dispute what Richard Gilbreath is saying,  as he probably hears about the majority of bears,  and I only hear about the ones [whose advocates] happen to find GFAS.  The bears I’ve been involved with came from private owners or failed sanctuaries,  and were often acquired because someone was threatening to use them for bear baiting.  A private ownership ban is needed,”  Finch said,  “but passing laws is one thing,  and getting them enforced is another.”

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