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