For the past few years the animal-rights group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) has been publicly criticizing Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Cherokee, N.C., one of several roadside zoos in the area that keep bears in barren concrete pits. Now PETA has released a new undercover video, narrated by Bob Barker, illustrating the conditions in which the bears live and the lax attitude of the park's staff.
The video shows bears rocking back and forth and endlessly circling in the tiny pits. The bears, most of which are overweight, are fed stale bread which gives them loose, odorous stools that the park appears to mark with scented aerosol sprays. At least one of the bears displays broken teeth cause by chewing on concrete and rebar cages.
One man identified by PETA as the park's bear keeper is caught on video discussing killing a bear that bit someone by shooting it 20 times in the head. He claims he later ate the bear, saying there is no better meat than a bear that has been fed bread and apples all of its life.
In one of the most stunning exchanges caught on video, the park's manager allegedly admits to an informal policy against hiring Native Americans (his face is not shown nor is he identified by name in the video). Another employee apparently uses a derogatory term to describe Native Americans. The park is located within the reservation of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Nation, the only federally recognized tribe in the state.
Chief Saunooke Bear Park "has denied these bears the opportunity to express every natural behavior, from resting in a proper den to foraging and roaming," PETA senior vice president of cruelty investigations Daphna Nachminovitch said in a news release. "PETA stands ready to assist the USDA in getting these miserable animals out of the cement pits and to a sanctuary, where they will finally get to be bears."
PETA's complaints about the three bear pit parks in the region date back several years. In 2010, a 9-year-old girl was bitten by a bear, an event witnessed by a federal investigator. In 2011, the organization erected billboards around the region saying "Warning: Children Bitten at Bear Pits." Zoo owner Barry Coggins told USA Today in 2011 that "It's affected my business earnings. PETA is doing a lot of harm to my family." The U.S. Department of Agriculture has charged Chief Saunooke Bear Park with multiple violations, most recently in September 2012.
Barker himself visited North Carolina in 2009, where he butted heads with tribal chiefs after he called them uncivilized. Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Michell Hicks told Barker to stay in California and told USA Today in 2011 that he did not agree with PETA's tactics. He said at the time that he could like to see the zoos expanded into better parks and habitats.
The park has not commented on PETA's latest allegations except to shut down its Facebook page, which was active until Jan. 7, the day PETA released its video.
Updated January 30: The U.S. Department of Agriculture has suspended Chief Saunooke Bear Park's exhibitor license and fined the park $20,000, according to a report from the Citizen-Times. The bears remain the property and responsibility of zoo owner Kole Clapsaddle, who in acknowleding the USDA order was not required to admit to or deny the charges.
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