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.

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