10 min read

People Fight To Free Bears Who Spent Nearly 20 Years In Empty Concrete Pit

“If it’s the last thing those bears do, I want them to be able to roll in the grass.”

Four grizzly bears have paced their tiny concrete pits at North Carolina’s Cherokee Bear Zoo so much they’ve worn down their claws and cracked their paw pads. The bears — Lucky, Layla, Marge and Elvis — may soon have a chance to move to a bear sanctuary, thanks to a recent court win by two Cherokee tribal elders.

The bears, now in their 20s, have spent almost all their lives in the grim subterranean concrete pits, not seeing much of nature from their prison at a roadside attraction in downtown Cherokee, across the street from a Burger King. They have never been able to hunt, forage, run, den or even hibernate in the winter. Their diet is mainly bread, apples and pet food pellets. The concrete rooms are sprayed regularly with strong-smelling cleaners. 

Two bears at the Cherokee Bear Zoo try to get out of the hot sun
Two bears at the Cherokee Bear Zoo try to get out of the hot sun. | Cheryl Ward

Pits at the zoo range from 300 to 1,300 square feet, according to the Coalition for Cherokee Bears — though proper enclosures, as the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) notes, “should be measured in acres rather than feet.” Even North Carolina state law requires an acre per bear pair — along with trees, bushes and a den. 

The zoo “fail[s] to provide for the very basic and essential needs of a bear in enclosure design, daily husbandry, environmental enrichment and veterinary care,” Else Poulsen, the late bear behaviorist, once said. The bears pace and bob their heads compulsively — classic signs of frustration and boredom among captive animals.

The ongoing lawsuit to free them is about the four resident grizzlies, but other animals, including black bears, live at the zoo. A separate, larger collection of bears has passed through the zoo as cubs, and are used to pose with tourists. The cubs are kept in small cages and are often heard moaning sadly, then leave the zoo when they’re too big to be safely handled. Their fate after leaving the zoo is unknown.

Visitors pay $5 to enter the zoo and $20 to take a picture with a cub. “For a dollar apiece, visitors to Cherokee Bear Zoo receive trays with a sliced apple, wheat bread, and a leaf of romaine lettuce,” Roadside America writes. “They yell, ‘Hey BEAR!’ and the bear usually sits up, or lies on its back wiggling its paws in the air, triggering an appreciative shower of food.”

A bear at the Cherokee Bear Zoo begging for food
A bear at the Cherokee Bear Zoo begging for food | Cheryl Ward

Collette Coggins, who owns the zoo with her husband Barry, is a Cherokee tribal member, and, according to fellow members Peggy Hill and Amy Walker, the tribe has been sheltering her from repercussions.

Hill and Walker, who are known as the political watchdogs of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, have been waging a legal battle to free the bears since 2013 — and their case may finally be turning in the bears’ favor. In August, a Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals panel stated that the zoo violated the Endangered Species Act because it “takes,” or harasses, the bears by not allowing “normal behavioral patterns [including] ... feeding, or sheltering.” 

grizzlies at Cherokee Bear Zoo
Two bears begging for food at Cherokee Bear Zoo | PETA

To drum up support, Hill and Walker created a newsletter to convince other tribal members of how unnatural the bears’ life is. “Is it right?” they write. “For baby cubs to be immediately taken from mothers and placed in an extremely small cage designed for birds? … To breed bears for their baby cubs to be placed on display, only to be sold and slaughtered at end of season? For adult bears and cubs to have to beg for food? To never experience what it is like to hibernate and rest during the winter?”

The long fight over the bear zoo was sparked by a 2013 PETA undercover video, narrated by Bob Barker, and an accompanying report on captive bear attractions, which lead to closing of another facility, Chief Saunooke Bear Park, in 2013. Along the way, actor Alec Baldwin cited the zoo as an example of how bears should not be treated as part of a PETA campaign to end the captivity of 1,000 bears in the U.S. and outlaw concrete pits. 

grizzlies at Cherokee Bear Zoo
Two bears pacing around a small concrete enclosure at Cherokee Bear Zoo | PETA

Hill and Walker say Native Americans have a spiritual and cultural connection to the bears. Indeed, members of nine tribes are leading the fight to protect Yellowstone grizzlies. But the future of the legal case is still uncertain — it’s headed back to a district court, where a judge had previously dismissed the suit, despite calling the conditions at the zoo “archaic.” Mark Melrose, a lawyer for the zoo owners, said he may try to take it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“The practical result of this ruling is significant,” Melrose said, because it would mean that “no unaccredited facility would be holding threatened or endangered species.”

The zoo owners have tried to buy more land for the bears, Melrose says. They claimed in a local paper the tribe turned them down three times. 

grizzlies at Cherokee Bear Zoo
Two bears scratching at the door of their enclosure at Cherokee Bear Zoo | PETA

Perhaps the tribe’s reluctance to allow the zoo to expand is a sign of its growing discomfort with the Cherokee Bear Zoo. Last year, the tribe debated banning underground bear enclosures like the ones at the zoo, but nothing came of it. If the tribal council were to act, it has the authority to close the zoo — even without a federal court ruling.

While bears from Chief Saunooke Bear Park, the similar park that was closed down, now live at a Texas bear sanctuary, Melrose argues that his clients’ bears might be traumatized by a move. 

James Whitlock, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, isn’t buying it. “If it’s the last thing those bears do,” Whitlock said, “I want them to be able to roll in the grass.”

bear at Cherokee Bear Zoo
Cheryl Ward
If you’d like to help free the Cherokee Bear Zoo bears, you can make a donation to the Cherokee Bear Coalition. You can also contact the zoo directly to ask the owners to relocate their bears (scroll down for contact information).