Recently, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians found itself the whipping boy of an unlikely opponent.
Much to the tribe’s surprise, the national organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals last month released a statement calling for an end to the practice of keeping caged bears in Cherokee. The statement named three small zoos as the culprits, the last holdouts of a practice that was once common in the area’s early days as a tourist destination.
“Tell Cherokee to end cruel bear pits,” the release said, citing the zoos — Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post, the Cherokee Bear Zoo, and Santa’s Land — for keeping “neurotic” bears in “grossly inhumane conditions.” PETA had even gotten a celebrity to sign on to the cause — none other than Bob Barker, former host of “The Price is Right” and a Native American from the Sioux tribe. In a letter, Barker requested a meeting with Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks to discuss the practice.
PETA’s campaign took Cherokee officials off guard. Suddenly, Hicks’ personal email was flooded with 650 messages from angry PETA supporters — so many he had to block the address they were being sent from.
“I just think it was pretty disturbing how PETA approached this issue, when one didn’t even exist,” Hicks says.
That’s precisely where Hicks and the PETA organization disagree.
PETA has waged something of an undercover operation in Cherokee in recent months since it was alerted to the bears’ existence by Barker (see related article). The group has traveled to the region with experts to study and film the caged bears at the three zoos.
PETA says it found the bears housed in cramped, concrete pits with few toys for stimulation. They denounced the feeding of the bears by visitors who are given small snack trays containing lettuce, apples and bread at two of the zoos to toss down to the animals. The group is convinced that there is indeed a problem.
“Neurotic behavior is evident in these bears,” said Debbie Leahy, head of PETA’s captive animal division. “You see a lot of crying, whimpering, pacing, walking in circles, and fighting.”
Barker is fully on board with calling attention to the bear’s plight, he said in an interview with The Smoky Mountain News.
“I do not purport to be an expert on bears, but I’m impressed with the experts who’ve seen the bears themselves and seen the films,” said Barker. “All of them agree that the bears are not being adequately cared for, and that they are showing signs of stress. They are not healthy.”
Barker wants to arrange a meeting with Hicks to discuss the bear exhibits. Hicks said he was amenable to discussing the situation with Barker, but as of press time no meeting had been arranged.
Out with the old
Though PETA only recently got wind of the practice, the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common. Sitting outside of the Tribal Grounds coffee shop, Eastern Band member Dennis Watty points across the street.
“I remember there was a cage right over there,” Watty says. “There were bears in cages all along the side of the road.”
Jeff Goss is the owner of the Goss Agency marketing firm, which works with the tribe. As he explains, the practice started to take off when more and more tourists flocked to the newly established Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The poverty-stricken Cherokee were desperate for income, and many capitalized on the stream of visitors passing through the area. The Wild West, cowboys and Indians themes dominated pop culture at the time, so the Cherokee adopted a fittingly rugged persona, building teepees (though that wasn’t a part of their culture) and displaying native black bears to gawking tourists.
“The teepees and bears were there simply to make a little bit of money to survive as tourists were coming through to the Park. They had no real source of income,” Goss says. “(Tourists) didn’t want to see the real Cherokee — they wanted to see what they saw in the movies.”
But the bears often suffered as a result of the practice. The animals were sometimes lured from the wild into the trunks of cars by the smell of bacon, remembers writer Gary Carden of Sylva. They were then taken to live in small cages where tourists were free to feed them.
“It was definitely inhumane,” Carden remembers. “The bears were frequently sick and malformed from living on a diet of candy and junk food.”
The popularity of the caged bears has dwindled in recent years, however, as Cherokee has worked to redefine itself and its image. The Goss Agency was put in charge of the tribe’s marketing plan five years ago.
“There’s been a move and concentrated effort to establish the rich, authentic Cherokee culture,” Goss says. “As a result, that’s shedding that image.”
The tribe’s marketing campaign, emphasizing its natural and cultural features, has been wildly successful. PETA advocates say the continued existence of caged bears is a huge step back.
“This is truly a relic,” says Leahy. “I don’t think there are too many other places in the country that still maintain any sort of wildlife in these archaic pits. They really seem to be locked in some 1950s time warp.”
Barker says the tribe has so much else to offer — the mountains, museums, cultural exhibits, friendly residents, and the casino — that the bear exhibits are obsolete.
“Bear pits may have been a big attraction at one time, but are now seen as an embarrassment,” Barker said.
Goss is skeptical. He said he’s never heard concerns about the caged bears come up in any of his research, part of which involves asking visitors about negative perceptions or barriers to the experience.
“There’s so little of it, and it’s so insignificant. What does exist, there’s little awareness of it,” Goss says. “For the few people that might stumble onto that while in Cherokee, that’s not the overall impression they take away.”
The Cherokee Bear Zoo, a nondescript building which houses a fudge and ice cream shop along with a variety of exotic animals, is one of the only remaining places exhibiting bears. Caretaker Norbert Santiago is incensed at PETA’s accusations. He’s looked after the zoo’s 10 black and grizzly bears for a decade, and considers them to be family.
“We take good care of them,” he repeats several times. “They are happy here. This is home.”
The bears are housed in pairs in pens with four cinderblock walls and a concrete floor. The facilities are sparsely furnished, with a tree limb, a couple rocks, a small piece of cloth that provides a square of shade, and a pool with cold water piped in directly from the river. The bears don’t have much to play with, except one another, and are kept amused by visitors chucking down pieces of lettuce, apple and bread. Like dogs, the bears beg and even do tricks for their food.
It’s a far cry from the grassy, treed, expansive environment the animals would experience in the wild, but then again, these hardly seem like wild bears. In fact, none of them has ever lived anywhere else, Santiago says.
“They’re bred and raised in captivity from the time they’re babies. None of them have lived in the wild,” he says. “They wouldn’t survive.”
Santiago calls the bears “our pets,” and indeed, that’s how the bears seem. They even respond to their names — a large grizzly named Elvis lumbers over when Santiago calls for him.
Santiago maintains that the bears are content.
“I know they’re happy. If they weren’t happy, they would show it,” he says.
In fact, PETA alleges that the bears do show signs of unhappiness, including whining and crying out. But Santiago says the bears don’t do that, and accuses PETA of “making things up. I don’t see them crying,” he says.
Indeed, it’s difficult to picture Santiago willingly committing the abuse PETA alleges on animals he refers to as his family.
Room to roam
Still, PETA says that the bear’s surroundings at the three facilities aren’t adequate.
“Bears are extraordinarily difficult to keep in captivity,” says Leahy. “They’re so intelligent, so curious, such active animals that you need to provide with a lot of diversity and space. They need opportunities to forage, dig, and nest, and things to climb on.”
The WNC Nature Center in Asheville, one of the only other regional facilities that exhibit bears, takes a different approach to housing its animals, striving to provide them with an environment similar to their wild habitat.
“To be honest, bears are a challenge even for multi-million dollar zoos to keep in captivity,” says Henry Bulluck, animal curator for the Nature Center.
Bulluck says that bears can develop physical ticks when housed in small concrete cages with little stimulation. To prevent this, the Nature Center keeps its bears in a one-acre facility with natural ground, grass, trees, a large pool, and plenty of logs to crawl on. Throughout the day, the bears are given different enrichment devices.
But there’s a major difference between the bear zoos in Cherokee and the WNC Nature Center — namely, the guidelines each facility must follow.
Playing by ear
Every facility in the country that houses captive animals for exhibition must comply with the Animal Welfare Act, which is enforced by the Animal Welfare Division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act requires captive animals to have shelter, food, water, a sanitary environment, protection from extreme temperatures, and adequate veterinary care. Just what defines those things is largely up to the USDA inspector of a facility. Animal advocates have criticized the act for being too lax and vague.
“One of our frustrations is that the Federal Animal Welfare Act only establishes bare minimum guidelines,” says Leahy. “Unfortunately, we would consider the minimum requirements to be inhumane.”
One of the major downfalls of the Animal Welfare Act is that “there are no explicit regulations and standards that address the complex needs of bears,” Leahy says.
To encourage higher standards, the WNC Nature Center completed a strenuous accreditation process through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. Participation in the association is voluntary, and demonstrates a more stringent level of commitment to animal welfare.
“It took a lot of work to become a part of it, but we want to show we’re following the best principle of animal care,” Bulluck says.
The tribe’s Cherokee Code, which the Cherokee zoos must comply with in addition to USDA guidelines, puts forth specific regulations on the handling of bears in captivity. Still, the requirements are basic. Cages for bears must be 8 feet by 12 feet with a concrete floor and include a pool and a den. Cages must be kept clean and shaded during the hottest parts of summer days.
So as sparse as the bears’ accommodations may appear at the Cherokee zoos, they’re within the law — which means there’s little PETA or anyone else can do to keep the facilities from operating.
“Tribal law allows for them to have captive animals, as long as they’re in compliance with tribal law and USDA standards,” said Hicks. “As far as I’m concerned, our businesses are within compliance.”
The fact that the bear zoos comply with existing USDA and tribal regulations matters little to PETA, an organization recognized for its often-zealous campaigns. One of PETA’s best-known tactics involves throwing fake blood on people wearing animal fur.
Over the top? Maybe a little, says Barker, but PETA knows how to get things done.
“I understand they (PETA) have been criticized as being radical on occasion, but I also know them to be one of the most effective, productive organizations in the country,” Barker says. “In a case such as these bears, no organization could help more than PETA.”
Slap on the wrist
Yet even PETA is limited in what it can do for the bears — a real change in the practice may require broader, institutional change. Currently, even when the zoos don’t meet regulations, it appears little is done about it by the officials inspecting the facilities.
USDA inspectors check up on the Cherokee bear zoos once a year, as they do with all other captive animal facilities. Inspectors have cited both Chief Saunooke’s Trading Post and Santa’s Land for numerous citations involving bears in recent years (the Cherokee Bear Zoo has received citations for its care of other animals, but none involving its bears).
For instance, in 2008, the inspector found that the Trading Post did not have adequate barriers to prevent public contact with the bears. The facility received several citations the previous year, in 2007, for what the inspector described as “the overwhelming nauseating foul odor of ammonia and feces,” dim lighting, failure to clean the cages, and an inadequate feeding tube that posed an injury risk to the bear cubs.
Santa’s Land also got written up in 2008 for unleashing bear cubs during public feedings and posing a threat to public safety, as well as for a jagged feeding tube. In 2006, the park was docked for failing to have a regular veterinarian, inadequate shelter, and improper handling of the bear cubs to prevent contact with public.
Despite numerous violations, the facilities continue to operate. Santa’s Land did not respond to numerous phone calls. The Smoky Mountain News visited Saunooke Trading Post and tried to contact managers in charge of the animals but was unsuccessful.
“Not only should USDA regulations be stronger, they should be stringently enforced,” says Barker.
Barker says the USDA lacks the staff to adequately follow through with the citations inspectors issued.
“There are so many animals being mistreated across the country, and they don’t have enough USDA inspectors to keep up with them,” Barker said. “Now that we’ve brought attention to this, hopefully the USDA will do something.”