By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
Bears and three local bear zoos were the hot topic at a Tribal Council work session and public meeting held on the night of Tuesday, March 19. Following the USDA shutdown of the Chief Saunooke Bear Zoo for multiple violations, some in the Cherokee community have called for the shutdown of all bear zoos.
“The animals are our primary concern,” said Peggy Hill, an EBCI tribal member from Yellowhill who gave a brief presentation to open the meeting.
When asked if she was hoping for immediate removal of the bears, Hill responded, “We’re asking that those bears be removed as soon as possible.”
Missy Crowe, an EBCI tribal member from Yellowhill, remarked, “Those violations were the business owner’s violations, and there were many of them. It is time to start re-earning respect for government, and it starts with brother bear. You are getting a bad image.”
She said it is time to protect the rights of the animals and close down the remaining bear zoos. “Let’s no longer have any more caged animals on the lands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee.”
Collette Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo and an EBCI tribal member from Birdtown, said, “It’s the outside that brought all this negativity. It’s not our enrolled members. We’ve done business here for 23 years.”
Coggins hopes to open a wildlife sanctuary and animal rehabilitation center on the Qualla Boundary that would include bears and close down her existing zoo. She said her zoo has never received citations or fines from the USDA.
“It doesn’t have to be a disaster,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be a mockery. Make it above the standard. Make it something the Tribe is proud of.”
When asked if she would be willing to meet the standards as set forth by the American Sanctuary Association at her proposed sanctuary, Coggins related, “No, I’m willing to go above the standards.”
“I think it’s a good thing. We have outsiders driving this thing. Before them, our people weren’t upset about this.”
Hill said she is opposed to a sanctuary that includes any exotic animals. “If you’re going to do a sanctuary, let’s do it indigenous to our area.”
Tribal Chairman Jim Owle pointed out that no tribal funds will be used for the proposed sanctuary if built. “They are putting up all the money. We’re not building this place.”
Big Cove Rep. Perry Shell said he is opposed to showcasing bears in any way and said there isn’t enough acreage available for a proper sanctuary.
“I’d like to see them all go,” he said. “Shut them down. We know it’s wrong. We don’t need PETA to tell us that.”
Principal Chief Michell Hicks commented, “When I go to a big city…the first place I go and take my kids is the zoo. Do you know how many kids come to Cherokee to see the animals?”
He said it’s important for the Tribe to look at the bear issue and create laws and standards to protect the animals, the business owners, and the Tribe. “To completely do away with animals, I don’t think that’s what we should do.”
Keredith Owens, an EBCI tribal member from Yellowhill, said she has never liked the idea of the bear zoos. “If there’s people that are willing to take these bears and let them live out their days, then let them.”
Owens said she is a member of the Wild Potato Clan which she related used to be called the Bear Clan. She referenced the Cherokee Bear Dance and said, “That’s how we exhibit it. That’s how we celebrate it.”
Mary Wachacha, an EBCI tribal member from Yellowhill, remarked, “You would think that we would get the idea that the general public and a lot of our tribal members do not like the idea of caged bears. Bears are not pets. We’ve held the bears as sacred animals. It’s not right to cage them.”
Big Cove Rep. Bo Taylor said he hasn’t made up his mind on the issue, but did say he has the utmost respect for the bears and wants to see them protected. “As a Cherokee, I wear those bear claws. I sing those songs.”
At the end of the meeting, Chief Hicks said it is important for the Tribe to develop a long-term strategy for animals on the reservation. “I think we’re all here to do the right thing.”