U.S. Department of Agriculture officials levied fines of $5,000 against the owner of Chief Saunooke Bear Park, Kole Clapsaddle, and suspended the park’s license to display bears to the public. The act stemmed from an official complaint last summer alleging numerous violations of the Animal Welfare Act that had gone uncorrected during the previous two years.
The penalties were agreed upon by Clapsaddle and in an administrative court. The dozen or so violations included failure to maintain clean enclosures for the bears and provide proper food, as well as an inadequate barrier between the bears and visitors.
Since December 2009, federal inspectors have repeatedly visited the zoo.
Though the bear park is currently closed for the winter, it would have to re-apply for and be granted permission to open this spring. The bear park also stands to incur $15,000 more in automatic fines if it indeed reopens and violates the act within two years.
The sanctions were celebrated by animal rights activists, who have long targeted the bear park and others like it with protests and publicity campaigns, yet many believe it should be viewed as only the first step in shutting down all of the private bear zoos on the reservation. Chief Saunooke Bear Park is one of three bear zoos on the reservation.
Delcianna Winders, director of captive animal law enforcement for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said she believes the federal inspectors should confiscate the bears still held at Chief Saunooke, due to their deplorable living conditions.
“I would like to see the bears confiscated and sent to a reputable sanctuary,” Winders said. “The bear parks in Cherokee are among the worst in the nation.”
As of early January, the Chief Saunooke Bear Park possessed 11 bears: six of them were black bears, two were brown bears and three were Asiatic black bears.
However, for the federal government to legally confiscate the Chief Saunooke bears, they must be found to be in a state of “unrelieved suffering,” according to Dave Sacks, a department spokesman. Otherwise, the ruling only prohibits the public display of those animals to paying patrons.
“If he wants to live the rest of his life with bears, it’s in his court,” Sacks said. “But he can’t exhibit those animals now.”
Theoretically, without being able to make money off showing the bears, the cost of their upkeep could force the owner of the animals to divest of them, however.
Sacks said Clapsaddle has the opportunity to re-apply for his permit. And if everything at the zoo is found to be in compliance with the law, he is eligible to continue running his operation. Sacks said agents visited the park on Jan. 9 and recorded a “clean” inspection of the zoo.
Chief Saunooke Bear Park has long been the target of many outside protestors, from a personal visit from game show celebrity Bob Barker to a picket by a troupe of regional PETA protestors in January. However this time around, Clapsaddle’s zoo may be facing a little bit of opposition from within Cherokee.
The sanctions on the zoo came right after PETA released an undercover video of the zoo that disclosed the facility’s workers saying discriminatory comments against Native Americans and showed the bears biting the metal bars of their cages until their teeth snapped.
The images of the pent up bears, pacing back and forth in cramped cages upset 71-year-old tribal member Amy Walker after she attempted to watch the online video. She said she had never been inside one of the bear zoos in Cherokee and didn’t realize what was taking place.
Now, she plans to go before the tribal council with other supporters Feb. 14 and petition them to close Chief Saunooke Bear Park and all the bear parks in Cherokee.
“I feel like there are a lot of native people upset about this,” Walker said. “I think it’s a black eye on all of us.”