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.