By SCOTT MCKIE B.P.
ONE FEATHER STAFF
The keeping and displaying of bears in concrete pits has been a controversial topic in Cherokee for several years now. Tribal Council tabled legislation (Ord. No. 116 – 2016), submitted by Principal Chief Patrick Lambert, during its Budget Council session on Tuesday, April 5 that would ban the confinement of bears in a pit or any underground enclosures.
“This Ordinance gets to the heart of what I think, and a lot of members feel, is a cruel and inhumane treatment of animals,” Chief Lambert said during debate on the legislation. “Twenty years ago, when these concrete pits were created, no one really thought anything about it, but times change.”
He said the bears deserve care and respect. “Our Tribe has held them in a sacred place and looked upon them as revered creatures for centuries. To now belittle ourselves to the point of allowing these animals to sit down in a concrete pit, to me, in today’s time, is unconscionable.”
Chief Lambert said an amendment might need to be made to the Ordinance to give current owners a chance to come into compliance. “There are animal groups out there that would pay to have these animals brought to an animal sanctuary where they can live out the remainder of their days with free roaming and grass and a comfortable life.”
Collette Coggins, owner of the Cherokee Bear Zoo in downtown Cherokee, commented, “When we built the business 24 years ago downtown, we built it to, actually, the Tribe’s standards. I’ve had people come up here and make allegations that we’ve been cited, that we’ve had fines, and we’ve had none of it. We’re regulated by the USDA. We’ve always been regulated by the USDA.”
She said the idea of an animal sanctuary is exactly what she has had in mind for almost four years, but she will need a different parcel of land as expansion at her current site is not possible. “I’ve came to Council with three different pieces of property and been denied all three times for absolutely no reason.”
Coggins added that she has run a “good, clean business”.
Referring to PETA’s involvement in the issue over the years, she stated, “It’s just ridiculous and it’s ongoing, and it’s not the enrolled members stirring it up. That’s why I’ve got a huge problem.”
Amy Walker, an EBCI tribal elder from the 3200 Acre Tract, said, “If I had to live in the city and walk on concrete, my spirit would die, and when that dies, I’m left a shell of a person. And, so I believe the same goes for the animals. If I had a dog or a cat, I would never put it in a pit and leave it day after day, week after week, year after year.”
Birdtown Rep. Travis Smith said the Tribe should give Coggins an opportunity to lease property for a proper, animal sanctuary. “I don’t think Ms. Coggins has ever been opposed to building a natural habitat for her animals or bringing it up to any new standards that the Tribe proposes…the problem has always been that that Tribe has never allowed her to lease property.”
He made the move to kill the Ordinance stating, “This Ordinance doesn’t allow the ample amount of time that it’s going to take to build that.”
Yellowhill Rep. Anita Lossiah said it is time to move forward with a new type of wildlife facility that includes proper enrichment for the bears. “If a bear has proper enrichment, then it helps prevent any kind of unhealthy responses that the bear could have…concrete pits are a thing of the past. It’s antiquated. The time is right to move forward with appropriate legislation for appropriate facilities, but not sacrificing the safety of our visitors, of our tourists, of our bears.”
Her colleague, Yellowhill Rep. B. Ensley, didn’t agree with the Ordinance. “We know we’ve got something to deal with, but we don’t need some people like the PETA group coming in here telling us what to do. I think we can handle our own problems. Collette, she is willing to invest her own money.”
Big Cove Rep. Teresa McCoy said the issue needs further discussion and made the motion to table which was eventually approved. “The Big Cove Community will not support bears in cages. The Big Cove Community will not stand for it.”
She added, “For once in our lives, we need to be tribal people and show the world that the animals that we claim to revere and take part in our clan systems and are part of our history, that we care enough about them to display them to the world in a healthy and creative way.”
Birdtown Rep. Albert Rose said he doesn’t agree with keeping bears in pits and related he’d like to see the Tribe work with Coggins to bring her idea of a wildlife sanctuary to fruition. “It’s hard for me to see bears in pits like that. It’s hard for me to even see a dog on a leash…I want to see them walking on grass, climbing trees.”
Tribal Council Chairman Bill Taylor agreed and commented, “If we’ve got an enrolled member (Coggins) that’s willing to put their money up and build it, I don’t have an issue with it. She’s in good standing with the people she’s leasing from. She’s paid her levy. I don’t have a problem with that, and I think we need to allow her do that.
“I think all of us want to see the bears come out of those facilities and put into an outdoor facility, but I’m in full support of our local business people. They’re the ones that keep the levy coming in and feeds the programs here.”
After the vote was taken to table the legislation, Rep. Lossiah noted that the Ordinance governing bears and other captive animals needs to be looked at and strengthened even beyond the federal minimal requirements. “Under our sovereignty, we can do better. We can rise above the minimal requirements that the feds have set upon us.”
During the debate on the issue, it was decided to have a work session on the legislation, but that has not been scheduled as of press time.