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Cherokee bear zoos get reprieve from tribe for now

After months of debate and protest, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians’ Tribal Council voted to let the bear zoos on the Qualla Boundary remain open, although it was not unanimous.


The three bear zoos in Cherokee have come under fire on and off during the past few years, especially two that keep bears in concrete pits for tourists to view. A video that showed bears in Chief Saunooke Bear Park pacing in concrete pits and chewing on metal bars until their teeth snapped prompted new outcries earlier this year.

The video incited new calls for tribal council to pull the bear zoos’ business permits. The council held repeated discussion on the matter, but last month, tribal council voted to allow the bear zoos to keep operating. Three council members — Perry Shell, Terri Henry and Bo Taylor — dissented.

The tribe has minimum standards the bear zoos must meet, like hosing down the animals’ cages once a day, providing adequate food, not restraining them with collars, chains or stakes, and holding them in an iron- or steel-barred cage that is at least eight feet by 12 feet by six feet.

Tribal Council Member Diamond Brown said council needs to strengthen its standards. However, no specific date or time has been set to review them.

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“The reason why is we have been focused on getting that casino,” said Brown. Tribal Council recently approved plans for a second casino establishment in Murphy, which has been a time consuming issue to hammer out during the past two months.

Brown said he would like to see a sanctuary built for the bears, one where they have plenty of room to roam and a creek to hunt fish in, since they cannot be released into the wild.

Cherokee Bear Zoo and Santa’s Land owners have complained they were unfairly being lumped in with Chief Saunooke Bear Park, which was shut down by federal inspectors earlier this year pending corrections.

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