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.