CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians said Wednesday they're planning to sue a North Carolina roadside zoo that houses bears in concrete pits on reservation land unless they release the animals to a reputable sanctuary.
An attorney for two tribal elders 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, said James Whitlock, an attorney for tribal elders Amy Walker and Peggy Hill.
If the bear park doesn't come into compliance, the next step is to file a federal lawsuit, he said.
Walker and Hill said the bears are being held in tiny cages in barren concrete pits.
"The Cherokee Bear Zoo is an open concrete grave for these intelligent animals and they must be move from the despicable facility to a place where they'll cared for, not abused and neglected," Walker said.
The owners of the bear park could not be immediately reached for comment Wednesday.
This 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 Wednesday's notice, the women's attorney said four adult grizzlies at the Cherokee Bear Park "all exhibit behaviors demonstrating psychological harm and profound physical stress as a result of the inhumane conditions."
The complaint 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 and "finally be allowed to be bears."
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 picturesque 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.