Friends of Grizzly Bears Take on a Zoo

     BRYSON CITY, N.C. (CN) - Two Cherokee tribal elders sued a North Carolina zoo, claiming it unlawfully keeps grizzly bears, a threatened species, in undersized concrete pits and cages, depriving them of an adequate environment, food and rest - and won't even let them hibernate.
     Peggy Hill and Amy Walker claim the Cherokee Bear Zoo, in Cherokee, violates the Endangered Species Act by keeping the bears in substandard conditions, and by buying and selling the protected animals.
     The Endangered Species Act prohibits the "take" of any threatened species, including grizzly bears. "Taking" includes harassing, hunting, wounding, killing, capturing or harming bears in any way. Federal laws also ban the transport and sale of grizzly bears.
     "Specifically, the CBZ confines four adult grizzly bears, and, from time to time, grizzly bear cubs, to virtually barren and archaic concrete pits which significantly disrupt and impair the grizzly bears' normal and essential behavioral patterns, resulting in inhumane living conditions which result in the unlawful 'take' of the grizzly bears," the women claim in the federal lawsuit.
     "Furthermore, plaintiffs also bring suit against the CBZ for possessing these unlawfully taken grizzly bears, as well as for the CBZ's practice of acquiring and/or disposing of grizzly bear cubs in interstate or foreign commerce in the course of commercial activity, both of which are prohibited by the ESA."
     The zoo's owners, Barry and Collette Coggins, also are named as defendants.
     Hill and Walker, residents of Cherokee, are members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI).
     "Plaintiffs, like many members of the EBCI, have deep cultural and spiritual connections with wildlife, and bears in particular, as they hold a special place in Cherokee culture," the complaint states. "Plaintiffs were taught to have an aesthetic appreciation in seeing bears living in the wild as well as bears living under natural and humane conditions.
     "A core cultural value of the EBCI is harmony, and more specifically the desire to live in harmony with nature and all forms of life, including wildlife. Plaintiffs believe that all things are connected in the overall environment and that wildlife, including bears, should be allowed to live in harmony.
     "As a result of the cultural and spiritual connections with wildlife referenced hereinabove, and bears in particular, plaintiffs were appalled to learn of the conditions under which grizzly bears were forced to live at the CBZ, as well as the CBZ's treatment of grizzly bears.
     "The inhumane treatment of the grizzly bears at the CBZ as set out in this complaint adversely impacts the cultural values of the plaintiffs and many other members of the EBCI, as the inhumane conditions in which these grizzly bears are forced to live violate the core Cherokee value of seeking harmony with nature, including wildlife.
     "As a result of the cultural and spiritual connection with bears referenced hereinabove, plaintiffs, prior to visiting the CBZ, had a personal and emotional attachment to bears, including grizzly bears, as well as an aesthetic interest in seeing grizzly bears living under humane conditions, even if in captivity.
     "Upon visiting the CBZ in the spring of 2013, plaintiffs developed a strong personal and emotional attachment to the grizzly bears at the CBZ, and were aesthetically and emotionally injured by observing these grizzly bears living in inhumane conditions that are unfit for the bears, and unlawful, as well as the illegal mistreatment of the bears by the CBZ. The grizzly bears were confined to virtually barren concrete pits, had neither apparent shelter nor anything resembling a natural habitat, and seemed lethargic and despondent. In fact, during plaintiffs' visit, the only real activity exhibited by the grizzly bears was to beg for food from patrons of the CBZ."
     Grizzly bears once lived in much of Western North America. European settlement gradually exterminated the bears in much of this range. Today only about 1,000 grizzlies remain in the continental United States, where they are protected by law. Many grizzlies still roam the wilds of Canada and Alaska, where hunters pursue them as trophies.
     Grizzlies are typically brown, though their fur can appear be white-tipped, or grizzled, lending them their traditional name. Despite their size, they can run as fast as 30 miles an hour. They tend to be solitary animals, with the exception of females and their cubs, but sometimes they gather in groups during their fishing season.
     The bears dig dens for winter hibernation, where females give birth, often to twins.
     Their natural ranges vary from dozens to hundreds of square miles of environmentally complex spaces, according to the complaint.
     The plaintiffs say the Cherokee Bear Zoo, "an unaccredited roadside menagerie," confines four adult grizzly bears - Elvis, Marge, Lucky and Layla - and, from time to time, grizzly bear cubs that are born at the zoo or acquired elsewhere. The bear cubs are used for photo shoots with the zoo's patrons, and when they become too large, they are sold away, according to the complaint.
     Hill and Walker say the grizzly bears, which require environmentally complex natural spaces to thrive, suffer from poor physical health, behavioral stress, malnutrition and diminished psychological well-being due to their confinement at the zoo.
     They claim the zoo does not provide adequate diets for the bears, allows patrons to feed them in uncontrolled public feedings, fails to provide shelter from extreme temperatures and does not allow bears to hibernate in the winter.
     The bears at the Cherokee Bear Zoo exhibit signs of poor welfare, such as constant pacing and head-weaving, which have led to footpad trauma, broken claws and head wounds from head rubbing on the walls, the women claim in the lawsuit.
     They claim that despite their attachment to the bears they bear to visit them until they are relocated to a more humane and natural setting.
     Hill and Walker seek a declaration that the zoo violates the Endangered Species Act and want it to surrender the bears to the federal government or a wildlife sanctuary.
     They are represented by James Whitlock with Davis & Whitlock of Asheville.
     "It's shameful that the Cherokee Bear Zoo is still displaying intelligent, sensitive bears in tiny concrete pits," Walker said in a statement. "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."
     The lawsuit is part of a public campaign to close down three privately owned bear zoos on the Cherokee Indian Reservation, including the Cherokee Bear Zoo.
     One of the zoos was shut down this year by the federal government.
     In October, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming the agency had failed to protect bears suffering in roadside zoos such as the Cherokee Bear Zoo.
     PETA has filed several complaints with federal regulators and Cherokee leaders about the bears' living conditions. Last year, the animal-rights group posted billboards in the area, calling the bear zoos "prisons" and claiming that a 9-year-old girl had been bitten while feeding a baby bear.
     Mark Melrose, of Melrose, Seago & Lay, who represents the Cherokee Zoo owners, said the owners will move to dismiss the lawsuit because it "lacks factual and legal basis."