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Cherokee Bear Zoo lawsuit moves forward

Cherokee Bear Zoo hoped a federal civil lawsuit alleging it mistreats grizzly bears in its care would be tossed out.

But U.S. District Court Judge Martin Reidinger recently denied a motion to dismiss the suit, allowing it to move forward. The suit, brought by two Cherokee tribal members, alleges that the zoo is violating the Endangered Species Act by keeping grizzly bears in conditions that cause them psychological damage, including living in concrete pits where they beg for food from zoo visitors. 

“The bears languishing in atrocious living conditions at Cherokee Bear Zoo have won this round in the courts,” says Cheryl Ward, a consultant in the lawsuit. “The bears suffer every day at this despicable so-called ‘zoo’ and will continue to do so until they get moved to a sanctuary.”

The zoo’s representation, however, doesn’t agree with that assessment. Their motion to dismiss was three-fold. First of all, the defense claimed that the tribal members bringing the suit didn’t have a stake in the zoo’s treatment of the bears and thus did not have legal standing to bring a suit. Secondly, the motion to dismiss argues, keeping bears is a government-regulated activity, so any concerns about an Endangered Species Act violation must be addressed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which issues permits for keeping bears, not in a lawsuit brought by private individuals. 

“The Plaintiffs have alleged only one prior visit to the Cherokee Bear Zoo and only conjectural future plans to visit, stating only that they ‘would like to’ visit in the future, a happening that is fully within their own control,” the defense’s support of the motion to dismiss reads, later continuing, “Because the Defendants have a permit [from the USDA], this citizen’s suit is not an appropriate procedure for enforcement and must be dismissed.”

Finally, the defense argues, the bears in question are not, in fact, grizzly bears. Thus, they are not protected by the Endangered Species Act. 

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“The veterinarian who has cared for the bears at the Cherokee Bear Zoo for the last 16 years has testified by Affidavit, unequivocally, that the bears that are the subject of this action are not grizzly bears,” the support document reads. The document does not name the actual species of the bears in question. 

Roadside zoos showcasing bears have been an attraction in Cherokee for decades but have come under fire in recent years. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has relentlessly targeted two bear zoos in Cherokee with myriad federal complaints, negative ad campaigns, an undercover video sting and protests.

Cherokee leaders have occasionally found themselves in the middle of the issue, as critics called on tribal council to ban the bear zoos.

One of the bear zoos closed down last year after failing to rectify repeated federal violations. That turned PETA’s sights on the Cherokee Bear Zoo.

PETA filed a lawsuit last year against the USDA, claiming its regulations and oversight of the zoos are inadequate. USDA is addressing that charge by reviewing its policies and regulations, including a public comment period.

The bear zoo was also charged a $3,120 fine this winter for allowing its workers to have “unprotected contact with bears while feeding, cleaning cages and assisting in mating activities,” according to documents from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Cherokee Bear Zoo did not return a phone call requesting comment. 

— Becky Johnson contributed to this report

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