Despite public pressure from animal rights activists, including a visit from legendary game show host Bob Barker, Cherokee leaders do not plan to address the living conditions of captive bears at three small zoos in Cherokee.
A campaign to shut down the bear zoos in Cherokee has largely targeted Chief Michell Hicks. Hicks says he supports the bear zoos, however, and disagrees with claims driven by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals that the bears’ conditions are inhumane.
While Hicks agreed to meet with Barker and PETA reps last week, he warned them not to protest outside the bear zoos again without permission from tribal officials or they would be kicked off the Cherokee reservation, an option in the tribe’s corner given its status as a sovereign entity.
While Hicks has made his stance clear, the elected tribal council members — not the chief — hold the power to pass new laws and ordinances. Out of the 12 tribal council members, five responded to requests for comment. All five said that tribal council has no plans to shut down the bear zoos or to impose tougher standards.
“We are going to stand with the chief on this issue,” said David Wolfe, a tribal council member from Yellowhill.
B. Ensley, also a council member from Yellowhill, agreed.
“It is dead issue as far as I am concerned,” he said.
Tribal council members say a federal inspection of the bear zoos once a year provides sufficient oversight of the animals’ care and treatment, despite accusations to the contrary.
“I think it has been overblown,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “What (PETA) did was unfair to Cherokee and Western North Carolina.”
The bear zoos are entrenched in the Cherokee tourism scene.
“They have been around forever,” said Abe Wachacha, a tribal council member from Snowbird.
Several tribal council members cited the long-standing presence of the zoos as reason enough to let them continue.
“This has been their way of life and an attraction for Cherokee as long as I remember,” said Angie Kephart, a tribal council member from Cherokee County. “We used to go when we were little.”
Kephart said Barker’s celebrity status has propelled the issue, but is not a reason to shut down the zoos.
“I don’t understand why it is such a big issue,” Kephart said. “Whatever the case may be, I think we have bigger issues to attend to than the bears. We need to be addressing things going on with our tribal members and the reservation as a whole.”
Like Hicks, tribal council members said they were offended by outsiders trying to tell them what to do.
“They come in here harassing people and use their organization PETA to try to do things with numbers and hand out propaganda,” Wolfe said.
While sidewalk picketing is seen as a form of free speech in most places, those protections don’t necessarily apply in Cherokee as a sovereign entity with its own laws.
Kephart said Barker and PETA should have shown more respect and treaded more lightly.
“This is the tribe,” Kephart said. “We are a sovereign nation. We can do what we want to.”
Wachacha said this is not the first time outsiders have complained about the bear zoos.
“Other people have come before the tribe, even back in the 1980s,” Wachacha said.
Cherokee’s style of government allows any member of the tribe to bring proposed legislation before the tribal council. However, complaints about the bears have never come from a tribal member.
“We would consider it if a tribal member wanted to bring that in,” said Perry Shell, a tribal council member from Big Cove. “All our people have that opportunity to address their government.”
Kephart said if the issue does come before tribal council, it would be appropriate to look at the existing codes and make sure they are adequate.
But Wolfe doubts it would go anywhere.
“I don’t see us tightening up or doing anything more than what they are doing,” Wolfe said.
Bob Barker and PETA say they will continue fighting the issue, even taking it to a national stage. Wachacha said he does not think it would hamper tourism or pose an image problem for Cherokee.
Shell said he has actually noticed more cars in the parking lots of one bear zoo since PETA’s campaign grabbed headlines in recent weeks.
Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians didn’t have to duke it out with other contestants or so much as wager a guess, but somehow, they got the price exactly right. On Tuesday, July 28, the tribe won a visit from long-time game show host Bob Barker. The legendary host of “The Price is Right” was in the area for a meeting with Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the plight of bears kept in three small zoos on the reservation.
Meeting the chief had been a goal of Barker’s since last month, when he announced he had teamed with animal rights organization PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) to protest the conditions of the Cherokee bear zoos.
Barker’s meeting took place at 1 p.m. Tuesday, July 28, just as this paper went to press. Before the meeting, Barker planned to visit all three zoos to check out the conditions. He said the zoos would be his only stop on his trip to Western North Carolina.
“I’m just going to visit the bear zoos. I won’t have time to do anything else, unfortunately, because I think the rest of Cherokee would be much more enjoyable than seeing these bears,” Barker said.
Following the meeting with Hicks, Barker will hold a press conference at 9:30 a.m. on Wednesday, July 29, to discuss his visit to the zoos and his meeting with the chief.
Barker hoped during his visit to convince the owners of the three zoos to release the bears and allow PETA officials to transport them to a sanctuary in Northern California at no cost. Barker estimated that about 30 bears would make the trip.
“They have a place for the bears to live in the way nature intended and never again have to entertain tourists or anybody else,” said Barker.
Barker and PETA have decried the conditions at Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land, saying the bears are housed inadequately in concrete pens with little stimulation.
Whether Barker’s campaign will have any impact on the practice of keeping caged black bears in Cherokee is up to the Tribal Council. Though federal regulations allow the keeping of bears, the council has the authority to pass legislation outlawing the practice on the reservation.
However, that kind of change may be slow to come. Tribal Council Chairman Mike Parker said he was not aware of Barker’s upcoming visit or his meeting with the chief, though Hicks had said tribal council would likely be present. In fact, Parker said he had never heard about Barker’s campaign with PETA.
“I don’t remember or recall ever talking about it,” Parker said. “My guess is that [the zoos] comply with federal regulations. Otherwise, they wouldn’t be in business.”
Prior to the meeting, Hicks said he anticipated speaking with Barker and PETA representatives about the bears and listening to their advice, then getting feedback on tribal law and the bear zoos’ compliance with federal regulations.
“We’ll kind of see how it goes from there,” Hicks said. “It’s going to be interesting — obviously, a lot of people know Bob Barker.”
Parker said Barker was taking the correct approach in asking to meet with the chief. He cautioned against forcing the issue.
“If he’s going to talk to the chief, that’s good, but to come in and try to force an issue, I don’t necessarily agree with that. That approach has been taken with us before and had some disastrous effects, so we’re kind of leery of that approach,” Parker said.
Barker said he would ultimately like to see Tribal Council outlaw the practice of caging bears, and “never have another bear on exhibition in Cherokee.”
Barker said he thinks, overall, the campaign has been a success.
“I think there has been an awareness of it, but that nobody was speaking up. The support has been so forthcoming since we’ve got into it and it’s been publicized,” Barker said.
“Cherokee has so much to offer, such as its beautiful mountains, museums, cultural and historical exhibits, Native American shops, friendly residents, and casino. The caged bears may have been a big attraction at one time but are now seen as an embarrassment to the community and should be permanently closed down.”
— Bob Barker, in a letter to Cherokee Chief Michell Hicks
The caged bears in Cherokee that a national animal rights group has recently launched a campaign against have long struck a nerve among many residents and visitors to the area. This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane treatment charges it has brought up.
According to PETA and others — this newspaper has received letters and phone calls from a half dozen visitors to Cherokee over the past 10 years — the bears kept at Santa’s Land, Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and the Cherokee Bear Zoo are “not being treated humanely.” The organization has garnered the support of popular game show host Bob Barker in the campaign. Barker was raised on a reservation in South Dakota and, according to his biography, is one-eighth Sioux. He has also spent many years as an animal rights activist.
The issue of treating animals humanely is an important one. At least two of the zoos in Cherokee — Santa’s Land and Chief Saunooke’s — have been cited for problems by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the agency responsible for regulating businesses that keep wild animals. PETA’s foray into Cherokee may lead to discussions by the Tribal Council and Hicks to enact tougher local regulations, which in the long run would likely benefit the businesses who keep bears.
Times are changing, and the very fact that 30 years ago many more businesses in Cherokee had bear displays is evidence that the “market” for this kind of “product” is disappearing. People don’t want to pay to see animals kept in enclosures that don’t mimic their natural habitat. In the end, that fact — that the business model for habitats deemed unethical is shrinking — is what will likely bring an end to these practices. And, conversely, places that go through the expense to keep captive bears in habitats that mimic the wild — like the WNC Nature Center in Asheville — earn kudos from most animal rights groups and get more visitors.
The ethical treatment of animals is a complicated issue, however, and sometimes campaigns like this by PETA don’t address the nuances. We won’t defend any mistreatment of animals, but shouldn’t we differentiate between bears born in captivity that are more like pets from those captured after their mother was perhaps killed by a car or hunters, or an animal wounded that couldn’t survive in the wild? Would PETA better serve the animals whose rights it is fighting for by providing grants to businesses to upgrade their habitats, rather than spending money mounting some of the campaigns that has tainted its reputation? And we won’t even go into the area of whether animals should be used in scientific research.
The real world is also nuanced. These Cherokee operations are legitimate businesses owned by families who are trying to make a living, providing jobs and surviving in this economic environment. That’s not to say it’s all right to treat animals inhumanely in the name of money, but remember there are regulators who do inspect and keep tabs on these businesses.
Cherokee would be better off by enacting stricter regulations, establishing itself as a leader in the field of captive animal welfare, and then helping businesses find a way to comply. That would go along way toward ending this lingering practice that, on its own, will likely die a slow death and likely continue to bring criticism to the Tribe.
The involvement of famed television host Bob Barker in the fight to end the Cherokee bear exhibits took many by surprise.
During a phone interview with The Smoky Mountain News, Barker explained that he first became aware of the bears through his long-time friend, Florida Congressman Bill Young. Young stopped through Cherokee with his family on a trip from Florida to Washington, D.C., and visited the bear exhibits. The Youngs weren’t impressed, to say the least — Young’s wife was practically in tears when the family left.
“He and his family were aghast at the condition of the bears. When he got home, he promptly called me,” Barker says.
Barker has long been an advocate of animal rights, ending each episode of The Price is Right with a reminder to “spay and neuter your pets.” Barker is well acquainted with PETA President Ingrid Newkirk, and informed her of what Young had seen.
“She promptly sent a couple people down there and they reported that some of the conditions were worse than had been reported,” says Barker.
Barker agreed to put his name to the cause.
“Mr. Barker has been a longtime animal rights advocate and we’re glad he’s taken an interest in this. It’s something that has been the source of a high number of complaints to PETA,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s Captive Animals Division.
When PETA released a nationally circulated statement June 8 calling for an end to the bear exhibits, it was accompanied by a letter from Bob Barker requesting a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks. The statement made note of Barker’s letter.
What happened next is a bit hard to decipher. Hicks says that the supposed letter mentioned in PETA’s statement was never actually sent to him.
“That was a big lie on their part,” Hicks says of PETA.
Hicks says he had to call PETA to obtain the letter, at which point they sent him a faxed copy that wasn’t signed. He then requested a stamped, signed letter, which he finally received.
“That was a big farce, was all it was,” says Hicks.
Barker disagrees, maintaining that the press release with the letter followed an earlier press release PETA had put out on the issue.
By last week, on Wednesday, June 24, PETA had still not heard back from Hicks’ office about setting up the requested meeting, though they continued to hope a call would come.
“We think the solution is going to require an opportunity to sit down with the chief and other members of the tribal council and discuss improvements that can be made for these bears,” Leahy said.
When The Smoky Mountain News spoke with Hicks on June 25, he told the paper he had still not responded to Barker’s request. Asked if he would indeed agree to it, Hicks said, “I will absolutely honor a meeting. I have no reason not to do that.”
Later that day, Barker confirmed that he had not heard back from Hicks. The SMN informed Barker of Hicks’ willingness to meet.
“Maybe we can get together then,” said Barker. He added, “I’d come down and meet with them. I’ll call PETA and arrange a trip to Cherokee.”
Barker said he looks forward to meeting with the chief in an effort to find some common ground on the issue of bear exhibits.
“I want to smoke the peace pipe with him,” Barker said.
— Julia Merchant