“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 This most recent effort will once again draw attention to this outdated practice and perhaps end it, but PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) own tainted reputation is likely to be as much discussed as the inhumane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.