Bear zoo charged with violation of Animal Welfare Act
Federal inspectors have upped the ante for a controversial bear zoo on the Cherokee Reservation, this time opening an official complaint against the operation that could face large fines or even be shut down.
Animal rights advocates have, for several years, vocally decried the treatment of bears at Chief Saunooke’s Bear Park, where tourists pay to peer down at black bears kept in concrete pits.
Now, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has issued the complaint against Chief Saunooke’s Bear Park and its owner Kole Clapsaddle for more than a dozen violations the bear zoo accumulated in 2009 and 2010.
Infractions can be minor offenses, such as expired medicine being stored on the premises, for example, and usually don’t carry a penalty as long as they are addressed. But if a site gets too many, fails to address recurring problems or has very serious animal care violations, it can have repercussions.
Revocation of a license can be one of the most severe penalties levied against the zoo, but other possible penalties include a fine of up to $10,000 or a suspension of the operating license.
The USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is responsible for monitoring all facilities where live animals are on display. The agency does routine, unannounced inspections, sometimes on an annual basis or perhaps more frequently. Between December 2009 and November 2010, inspectors visited the troubled zoo more than half a dozen times.
The complaint against Chief Saunooke details alleged violations of the Animal Welfare Act. One of the violations repeatedly listed in the complaint is failure to maintain an adequate barrier between the bears and visitors, which resulted in a girl being bitten on the hand by a bear. Animals at the park injured a caretaker as well.
The zoo also failed to maintain clean enclosures for the bears and failed to provide proper food, according to the complaint. It states that the zoo willfully violated the Animal Welfare Act.
The zoo will have the opportunity to respond to the complaint and attend a hearing before an administrative judge with the USDA.
If a settlement is not reached, the judge will take several things into account, such as violation history and good faith efforts to correct infractions, before issuing the civil penalty, according to David Sacks, a USDA spokesman out of Atlanta.
The owners of Chief Saunooke’s Bear Park could not be reached for comment. Although, caretakers in previous interviews with The Smoky Mountain News have asserted the bears were well cared for and happy.
Chief Saunooke’s Bear Park has been on animal rights activist radar for a long time. It, and two other bear parks on the Cherokee Reservation, became the subject of a national PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) campaign. Activists picketed the bear zoos, took out a billboard campaign and orchestrated a visit to Cherokee by Price Is Right celebrity Bob Barker, an animal sympathizer.
The other two bear parks do not have a complaint filed against them, Sacks said.
Delcianna Winders, director of captive enforcement for PETA, called the steps by the USDA positive ones in the effort to get rid the Cherokee bear zoos.
“For the USDA to file formal charges like this, it’s rare — it’s the worst of the worse,” Winders said. “Unfortunately, what we had seen until now were small citations and no action.”
She pointed toward an incident last summer where a girl was bitten while feeding a bear at one of the zoos. In 2010, PETA activists hand-delivered a letter to the USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack petitioning the closure of these bear zoos.
Winders said she hopes the result of this complaint is a permanent revocation of Chief Saunooke’s license to display live animals, and action taken against the two other bear zoos.
“They all have similar conditions,” Winders said. “All three are amongst the worst we have seen. There is literally no other place in the U.S. where bears are kept like this.”