courtesy PETA/Status of Bear Welfare in Cherokee North Carolina Report, pg 47
Bears kept in cement pens at the Cherokee Bear Zoo, which is being sued by tribal elders for inhumane conditions, including inadequate shelter and lack appropriate shade.

Bears Tortured! Tribal Elders Sue Cherokee Bear Zoo to Stop the Horror

Vincent Schilling

The grisly scene could have been straight out of a horror movie. Bears kept in deep concrete pits devoid of soil, grass or any other environmental essentials. Distressed bears pacing in circles, their teeth broken from attempts to chew through the metal cages. Months-old baby bears, which otherwise would stay with their mothers for well over a year, instead separated and put into bird cages to entertain the crowds, forced to live on dog kibble and Hawaiian Punch.

This was a bear’s life at the Cherokee Bear Park, and it is the sight that traumatized Eastern Band of Cherokee Tribal Elders Amy Walker and Peggy Hill, they say. The two are suing the Cherokee Bear Zoo on the Cherokee Reservation, citing consistent and repeated violations of the federal Endangered Species Act. The suit was filed on December 3 in U.S. District Court in Bryson City, North Carolina. 

The park is one of three on the Cherokee reservation, one of which was shut down earlier this year by the federal government for similar treatment of the animals. Though authorities closed Chief Saunooke Bear Park last January, according to the Huffington Post, Cherokee Bear Park and a third one, Santa’s Land, remain open.

"It's shameful that the Cherokee Bear Zoo is still displaying intelligent, sensitive bears in tiny concrete pits," said Walker. “It's obvious to anyone who sees them that these bears are suffering, and they will continue to suffer every day until they are sent to a sanctuary where they'll finally receive the care they need."

In the lawsuit, which names Barry and Collette Coggins of the Cherokee Bear Zoo as plaintiffs, the Davis and Whitlock firm in Asheville, North Carolina cite the Cherokee Bear  Zoo as having “barren and archaic concrete pits which significantly disrupt and impair the grizzly bears’ normal and essential behavioral patterns, resulting in inhumane living conditions.”

According to Cheryl Ward, who was called upon as a consultant on the case for Walker and Hill and is a leader of the Coalition for Cherokee Bears, cries to tribal officials have gone unheard for some time regarding the deplorable conditions of these parks.

“More than EIGHT months ago the tribal elders, along with other enrolled tribal members, urged the Tribal Council and Principle Chief Hicks to take action on behalf of these bears,” said Ward in an e-mail to ICTMN.

“Tribal officials have had ample opportunity to take meaningful action to help these suffering animals and they have failed, but the elders are not giving up,” she wrote. “The bears are entitled to the protections they are afforded under federal law and they deserve to be sent to a reputable sanctuary where they can finally be bears.”

Ward also expressed gratitude that Chief Saunooke Bear Park, which had housed 11 bears in conditions similar to those at Cherokee Bear Park, was closed down and that in June the bears were relocated to a 50-acre animal sanctuary in Texas. The USDA had suspended the park owner’s license and fined them $20,000 for inhumane living conditions.

In May 2010, enrolled members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee along with Delcianna Winders, director of captive animal law enforcement for the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), had met with the USDA to file complaints and submit a comprehensive report on the three bear parks, all in Cherokee, North Carolina. The report, Status of Bear Welfare, was authored by four experts on bear habitats and care, including Debi Zimmerman, an animal behaviorist with several decades of experience in animal husbandry.

About two months after the group’s meeting with the USDA, the federal agency traveled to the facility and issued a violation.

“The USDA confirmed that Chief Saunooke deprives the bears in its concrete pits of even their most basic needs, all the way down to proper food and shelter," Winders said in a statement at the time.

“I just want people to be aware that these bears are being held in conditions that are like the 1950s—people in accredited facilities are not keeping bears like this in any way at all,” Winders told ICTMN on December 3. “The bears are being deprived of everything that is important to them.”

The scene immediately reminded Zimmerman of a horror movie, she told ICTMN. Speaking from her office in Ontario, Canada, Zimmerman said PETA had hired her to survey Chief Saunooke Bear Park and report on the conditions. When she walked into the facility, she said, Silence of the Lambs, in which a victim is held captive in a dark pit by a serial killer, leapt to mind.

“It is hard to shock me because I evaluate the conditions animals live in. But I have to say walking in and seeing this was a surprise,” Zimmerman told ICTMN. “The character in that movie was sensory-deprived, and it was a hideous situation. It is the same for these animals…. I cannot overstate how un-stimulating this was. Bears can't live in a pit any more than that woman [character] could live healthfully in a pit. It was simply a bear in a pit—there's nothing else.”

Zimmerman saw behaviors consistent with neglect, including pacing and head-swinging. Bears were also rubbing themselves raw, producing open and oozing sores. Young bear cubs paced frantically.

“Their pace showed the degree to which they were stressed,” Zimmerman said. “They are at a stage when their brains are developing quickly, and when you put a brain that needs complexity into a sensory-deprived environment, there is heightened stress and the need to get out of there.”

In October the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) filed a lawsuit against the USDA , claiming the agency had failed to protect bears that were suffering in the roadside zoos. The previous year, PETA had purchased billboards in the area calling the roadside zoos “prisons,” and PETA spokesperson Bob Barker had also spoken out against the enclosures.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs say the suit is unfounded. Mark Melrose of Melrose, Seago & Lay, who represents the Cherokee Zoo owners, said the owners will move to dismiss the case because the plaintiff’s complaint “lacks factual and legal basis.”

“The Cherokee Bear Zoo is closely regulated and monitored by federal agencies and state and local authorities and is in compliance with all existing regulations and laws and is operating lawfully,” Melrose told the Citizen Times.

Nevertheless, a petition against the Cherokee Bear Park has garnered well over 5,000 signatures from all over the world with its demand that the park be shut down. Over the past several years, many organizations have attempted to close down all three bear parks.

“The elders want ALL the roadside zoos shut down and the animals moved to reputable sanctuaries,” said Ward.

Previously Eastern Band Chief Michell Hicks released a statement saying he wanted to give private zoo owners the opportunity to create a wildlife preserve on the reservation.

The Cherokee Bear Zoo's owners did not respond to ICTMN’s repeated requests for comment.



Paul Gibbs's picture
Paul Gibbs
Submitted by Paul Gibbs on

One corrections, they are in Cherokee North Caroline, not South Carolina. I have been to all 3 and they all are terrible, amazed by the bears but more saddened for them. Glad one is closed, hope the others are soon. Maybe someone can find a better way to show off wild life, including bears, there. Maybe even make an animal sanctuary or preserve, as mentioned in the article.

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

This is absolutely INEXCUSABLE! How can we call ourselves keepers of the earth when we treat the most regal (and sacred) of creatures like prisoners.

The Cherokee should be embarassed by this! As a matter of fact, they should lose this zoo.

Submitted by KAREN CHEESEBREW on


Wayne Beaver's picture
Wayne Beaver
Submitted by Wayne Beaver on

I would like to think the Cherokee People
can address the issues concerning
the bears and find solutions without any outside interference. The bears do need natural habitat

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on

no excuse.. to show consideration towards those that SHARE our planet..
( karma- what goes around.. )

Amy Gray's picture
Amy Gray
Submitted by Amy Gray on

I have been to this park and I do agree it should be shut down. I couldn't get over how these animals are kept in small concrete boxes.. I did wonder what they did with the animals after hours.

Gilraen777's picture
Submitted by Gilraen777 on

Michael Madrid... We ARE embarrassed by it... and just so you know... it does not belong to the tribe as a whole... it is privately owned and operated... Many of us have spoken out over it for years, but are just now being recognized and heard...

indianmedicine's picture
Submitted by indianmedicine on

This can be summed up as "Animal Cruelty", infliction of "Intentional Mental Anguish"; and FAILURE to maintain a Zoo or Other Animal Shelter within "Industrial Standards" of Zoology and Animal Husbandry.
Creation of "Natural Habitat" closest to an Animals "Natural State" was discovered in Early 60's as the "Standard of Care" that Animal Rights Advocates had "legally established" as a National Standard.
It is interesting that these Facilities were not exposed by any mandatory Annual Facility Inspection for their Certification as an Animal Caretaker facility.
The "Checks & Balances" in these Case's were NOT adhered too, and the Question is WHY ?.................................................................................................

Ania P's picture
Ania P
Submitted by Ania P on

This is an outrage! Bears like all mammals are smart creatures and deserve a life worth living. This cruelty may not go unpunished. The owners deserve jail time- jail is better than the conditions they kept the bears in. Disgusting.

Micmac000's picture
Submitted by Micmac000 on

Well so much for all the hype that the indigenous people (like the Cherokees) are keepers of the earth. (Looks like, keepers of the $ $ $ $ is more like it.)

Mary Ann Thompson-Frenk's picture
Mary Ann Thomps...
Submitted by Mary Ann Thomps... on

My heart goes out to the bears and offer prayers for them and for the Cherokee committed to creating a better life for them. I hope Chief Michell Hicks succeeds in creating a wildlife preserve on the if any animals deserve a free space to roam, these poor four legged souls do! Ometeotl!

ilmorescue's picture
Submitted by ilmorescue on

Horrible. Absolutely cruel. It may be privately owned, but as long as it has "Cherokee" in the name, it brings shame on the whole nation. Shut it DOWN!

Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on

To Gilraen777: I hope the majority of the Cherokee band together to fight this. Nothing can be more injurious to a tribe than the notion that we treat animals no differently than the White man.

My thoughts and prayers go to the Cherokee who are trying to help these poor animals; my curses and ill-will go to those who perpetuate this gross injustice both on the animals and the reputation of their tribe.

hammertime's picture
Submitted by hammertime on

So this horror zoo is owned by native cherokees,
not white people??? They think its ok to torture bears
like this for money from tourists??
They ought to be ashamed of themselves acting like this....

so where do you sign the petition?? is ther a place on line??

Thomas Pitts's picture
Thomas Pitts
Submitted by Thomas Pitts on

How would you like to be imprisoned for just being what God made you and made to live as an attraction for money from idiots who would EVER stop to see an animal falsely imprisoned under these conditions?

Waya7's picture
Submitted by Waya7 on

I never thought an American Native Indian would behave like a dirty white greedy human! Shameful!

Erin's picture
Submitted by Erin on

how terrible!! bears are known as keepers of the earth and should be treated with respect. shame upon the humans who could treat such a magnificent creature this way. how in the world can they sleep at night?!

Melody Stevens's picture
Melody Stevens
Submitted by Melody Stevens on

Capturing and enslaving these bears in concrete pits is barbaric and cruel. It is animal abuse at a high level and they must be freed to a sanctuary.

Linda Weeks's picture
Linda Weeks
Submitted by Linda Weeks on

Come on everyone, we know better than to treat our relatives like this. If the tables were turned, how would we want them to treat us?

Leslene Dunn's picture
Leslene Dunn
Submitted by Leslene Dunn on

The owner of this zoo needs to be taken somewhere remote and beaten into oblivion slowly.