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Tribal Elders Suing Cherokee Bear Zoo

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File photo of a gavel. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

File photo of a gavel. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians are suing a North Carolina roadside zoo that keeps bears in concrete pits on reservation land.

An attorney for two tribal elders filed the lawsuit Tuesday, 60 days after they filed a notice of intent to sue the operators of the Cherokee Bear Park for violating the federal Endangered Species Act. The act allows citizens to file lawsuits for violations, but it requires them to give 60-days’ notice to the violators and federal regulators

“It’s shameful that the Cherokee Bear Zoo is still displaying intelligent, sensitive bears in tiny concrete pits,” said Amy Walker, who filed the lawsuit with fellow tribal elder Peggy Hill. “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.”

Telephone messages left for the park owners were not immediately returned Tuesday.

The lawsuit is the latest development in the long, public campaign to close three privately owned bear zoos on the Cherokee Indian Reservation: Cherokee Bear Zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park and Santa’s Land.

Earlier this year, the Chief Saunooke Bear Park’s 11 bears, including three grizzlies, were taken to a 50-acre animal sanctuary in Texas. The move came after the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which enforces the federal Animal Welfare Act, suspended the park’s exhibitor’s license and fined the owner $20,000 over inhumane conditions.

Inspectors found that the zoo was failing to provide the bears with appropriate food, proper veterinary care and a safe enclosure.

In Tuesday’s lawsuit, the attorney for the elders said the owners of the Cherokee Bear Zoo kept the bears in inhumane living conditions – “barren and archaic concrete pits.”

The lawsuit said the bears are forced to beg for food from tourists and to languish in stark dank enclosures. The elders want the bears relocated to a sanctuary where they can live in large naturalistic habitat.

“Grizzly bears require large, environmentally complex, natural spaces that allow them to express a wide range of normal movement and behaviors,” the lawsuit said.

It said that because of the inadequate environment, the bears exhibit signs of severe psychological distress, including incessant pacing and circling.

Over the years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed 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 noted that a 9-year-old girl was bitten while feeding a baby bear.

Walker, Hill and other tribal elders became involved after watching a video that showed bears rocking back and forth and circling in the tiny pits.

They said bears hold a spiritual place in Cherokee history, and in February, pressed the tribal council to force the zoos to free the bears.

But the council declined to take action. Chief Michell Hicks later issued a statement saying he wanted to give private zoo owners the opportunity to create a wildlife preserve on the reservation.

The Eastern Band has allowed caged animals as a tourism draw since the 1950s.

For years, the community in the Blue Ridge Mountains has depended on its natural landscape and wildlife — with hiking trails, fishing streams and whitewater rapids — to attract tourists. But now, many people come to the area for the casino, which opened on the reservation in 1997.

(© Copyright 2013 The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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