Thursday, January 17, 2013

NC Tribe facing attack over bear zoos

Tribe facing attack over bear zoos

The sign along Interstate 26 near Asheville, N.C., offers this warning: "Children Bitten at Bear Pits."
The billboard is the latest in a two-year battle that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has waged against the zoos on the Cherokee reservation about an hour and a half west of Asheville.
It follows an incident last summer in which a 9-year-old girl was bitten at Chief Saunooke Bear Park while feeding a baby bear a mixture of Lucky Charms cereal and cat food.
The group's efforts are starting to hurt, one zoo owner said.
"It's affected my business earnings," said Barry Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo. "PETA is doing a lot of harm to my family."
The tribe's chief has threatened the group with a ban for its protests. It has flown in game show icon Bob Barker for a meeting with tribe leaders and is suing the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington over records related to the bear zoos.
The Barker visit ended in 2009 with the former "Price Is Right" host calling the Cherokee uncivilized and the tribe's chief urging him to stay in California.
Past billboards have called the zoos tourist traps and urged visitors to boycott.
In some cases, the zoos are concrete block pens that let tourists see and feed bears from above. PETA says they are inhumane. Zoo owners say they are important to the area economy.
"We'll keep fighting until they close down these archaic pits, which are a throwback to decades ago when no one knew much about bears' behavior and needs," said Delcianna Winders, PETA's director of captive animal rescue and enforcement. "Let bears be bears."
Coggins has native black bears, grizzly bears and European brown bears at his zoo along with an assortment of other animals. Customers may have a photo made with a baby black bear.
Maggie Harper of West Virginia spent a recent morning there with her 12-year-old son and 7-year-old daughter
"It seems like they are taken care of," she said. "They've got good water. It looks like they get plenty to eat."
Some of the bears perform tricks such as standing and turning in a circle or clapping their paws as customers toss a mix of apples, bread and lettuce over the side. Admission is $5.
The three roadside zoos on the reservation — Cherokee Bear Zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park and Santa's Land — are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which makes sure they comply with the federal Animal Welfare Act.
An inspector happened to be on hand in July 2010 to witness the girl being bitten.
The inspector's report described the girl's wounds as "scratches on the palm and back of the hand and tooth marks on the wrist bone."
Bear zoos were established on the reservation before tribal casinos, said Coggins, whose family has been in the business 20 years. Visitors bought leather moccasins, had their photos made with roadside "chiefs" and visited shops that used caged bears out front to draw customers in.
Today, Harrah's Cherokee Casino & Hotel is one of North Carolina's top tourism draws and among the largest private employers in the western part of the state. The casino opened in 1997.
National hotel chains moved in, replacing some of the old mom-and-pop operations. The tribal government built Sequoyah National Golf Club and renovated part of downtown for a more upscale look.
But the bear zoos remain, and Coggins said he's proud of his zoo and they way his animals are treated.
"We love them like pets," he said. "We are lucky to have it so you can get up close and even hold one."
Some Cherokee leaders say it's time to close the zoos.
Patrick Lambert, executive director of the Cherokee Tribal Gaming Commission who is running for principal chief this year, said he would like to see a zoo built on the reservation that offers a more natural habitat.
"I think we need to work toward the closure of the concrete bear zoos and show the humane, Native American way of dealing with our animals," he said.
A larger zoo on the reservation would help the economy by attracting families, he said.
Others don't want to hurt small businesses.
Principal Chief Michell Hicks, who is running for re-election, said he doesn't agree with PETA's tactics. He said many tribe members feel the same.
Hicks said he supports the bear zoos and free enterprise, though he would like to see changes.
"I hope that in the future we can see some expansion in the parks and the habitats," he said.
Ostendorff also reports for the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen Times.

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