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Cherokee debates captive bear laws

fr blackbearDays after a judge ruled that conditions at Cherokee Bear Zoo, while “not ideal,” fall within federal regulations, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians began to talk about legislation that would make the concrete, shadeless enclosures illegal under tribal law.

“I think a lot of us realize these are sentient beings. These are animals that deserve respect,” Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, who introduced the legislation, told Tribal Council. “To now belittle ourselves to the point of allowing the animals to sit in a concrete pit to me in today time’s is unconscionable.”

“Our tribe has spent years cultivating a pro-Cherokee experience,” Lambert said, and conditions like those found at Cherokee Bear Zoo undermine that. 

The law, as introduced by Lambert, would amend Cherokee code governing captive black bears to apply to all bear species and mandate that bears live “without caging under conditions simulating a natural habitat.” So, no concrete floors, no metal bars, no flushing of the enclosure with disinfectant. Natural vegetation, running water and an area of at least 50 square yards per bear would be required. Caregivers would also have to do their homework, documenting at least 100 hours of training in care of captive bears. Violations could result in a fine of up to $5,000 the first time and, after that, revocation of license, seizure and relocation of the bears at the owners’ expense, and a fine of up to $20,000.

The proposal brought mixed reaction from Tribal Council, with some members expressing wholehearted agreement that the legislation was sorely needed, some questioning its timing and necessity, and still others asserting that, while the intent was good, it needed some more work before a vote would be appropriate. Ultimately, council opted to table the legislation to hold a work session.

Councilmembers Tommye Saunooke, Marie Junaluska, Albert Rose, Adam Wachacha, Bo Crowe, Teresa McCoy and Richard French voted in favor of tabling. Chairman Bill Taylor, Vice Chairman Brandon Jones, and Councilmembers Alan “B” Ensley, Anita Lossiah and Travis Smith, meanwhile, voted to kill it. 

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Debating the legislation

For Smith, at least, opposition to the rules was couched in the repercussions they’d likely have on Collette and Barry Coggins, who own the bear zoo. The zoo has long been the subject of criticism and litigation due to the unnatural, unstimulating environment it offers the bears. But, Collette argued to Tribal Council, that’s not how she and Barry wanted it to be. 

“I myself have been coming to council for the last three-and-a-half years trying to expand my facility,” she told councillmembers. “I came to council with three different pieces of property and have been denied all three times for absolutely no reason.” 

In other words, Coggins said, she wanted to build a more natural environment for the bears but has been blocked by bureaucracy. In a follow-up interview, she also cited attorneys’ fees from the litigation as diverting the cash she would have needed to carry out any plan for expansion. 

“I don’t think Ms. Coggins has ever been opposed to building a natural habitat for her animals or her bringing anything up to any new standards,” said Smith, of Birdtown. “That’s never been the problem. The problem has been that the tribe never allowed her to purchase property, lease property to build these things.”

“I know Collette (Coggins). She has been to business committee several times and we have kicked this project around all over town, and that’s one of the things Collette offered to do was put her own money up to build this facility,” said Taylor, of Wolfetown. 

While Rose, of Birdtown, voted to table rather than kill, he agreed that Coggins hadn’t been given a fair shake in the past. 

“I still don’t agree with them being in pits, but I think we should give her a chance to come to business committee, work with her so she doesn’t lose her business,” he said. 

Other councilmembers, however, focused their comments on the bears’ present situation and the need to improve their lot as soon as possible. 

“The Big Cove community will not support bears in cages,” said McCoy, of Big Cove. “The Big Cove community will not stand for it. It takes a pretty special, unique person to profit off the suffering of another human or animal that can’t defend itself.”

“Concrete pits is a thing of the past. It’s antiquated,” agreed Lossiah, of Yellowhill. “The time is ripe. We need to move forward with appropriate legislation for appropriate facilities but not sacrifice the safety of our visitors, of our tourists, of our bears.”

Lossiah was of the opinion that Lambert’s resolution needed some more work before it could become law. For instance, she said, the new law should better address visitor safety requirements, and the enclosures should be required to include enrichment opportunities for the bears — that is, ways for them to keep their brains busy and curious. 

Lambert himself suggested one needed addition to the draft ordinance — a timeframe for existing facilities to come into compliance. And according to Peggy Hill, one of the two tribal members who had sued Cherokee Bear Zoo for its treatment of the animals, the space requirement shouldn’t be 50 square yards — it should be 50 yards by 50 yards, or 2,500 square yards. 


A tribe-run bear park? 

The discussion also took a turn toward the possibility of the tribe undertaking the bear zoo enterprise itself. Bears occupy a special place in Cherokee culture, the thought process goes, so it makes sense to have some kind of park or attraction paying homage to that fact. But who besides the tribe would have the combination of money and inclination to make sure it’s done right? 

“I’m not going to support anybody doing this. I’m doing to support the tribe doing it because for once in our lives we need to be tribal people and show the world that the animals we claim we revere, that we care enough about them to display them to the world in a healthy, creative way,” said McCoy. 

Moreoever, McCoy asserted, “I’m not giving Collette downtown property anywhere to make her buck off suffering animals anymore.”

Years ago, added Saunooke, of Painttown, the tribe had priced out what it would cost to build a safari-type park that would showcase the splendor of bears and other native wildlife in their natural habitat. The number was somewhere around $42 million. 

But, some other councilmembers said, but is it fair for the tribe to come in and essentially sweep Coggins’ business away from under her? 

“I think we should work with her,” Rose said. 

“If she (Coggins) is willing to put her own money up and build a facility, I think all of us want to see the bears come out of these facilities and put into an outdoor facility,” Taylor said. “I’m in full support of our local businesspeople.” 

What will wind up happening with the legislation remains to be seen, but council will likely continue the discussion sometime in the near future. 

“It’s only fair to the people that want the bears out and Collette (Coggins) to go to a work session, get this worked out as soon as possible,” Rose said. 

For her part, Walker is happy to see a serious discussion about outlawing the concrete pits happening. She’d already planned her next step after the court case wrapped up to involve pushing for just such a law.  

“The chief has picked up on this one, so now we’re not going to have to deal with it,” she said. 

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