Cherokee’s Unbearable Bear Pits
An Animal Rights Article from


Bob Barker on
August 2009

 “I’m not an expert on bears, I’m an expert on giving away refrigerators”

Even though my life has been full of incredible experiences and I’ve learned that there’s always more on the horizon, I never imagined I’d be writing a blog post for CNN at the age of 85. But when I was asked to write about my work for animals and my recent campaign to free some bears who are living in appalling conditions in Cherokee, North Carolina, I knew it was time to ask Debbie Leahy of PETA to help me with my computer skills.

Knowing about my love for animals, a few months ago my good friend Rep. Bill Young of Florida called me about an unfortunate experience that his family recently had involving caged bears. His wife, Beverly, had taken their children and grandchildren to Cherokee to educate them about life on a reservation. Being part Native American myself and having grown up on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota, I appreciated their interest in Indian culture.

Beverly saw a sign that said, “Come Feed the Bears,” so they stopped at a roadside zoo. She described what she saw as “sickening.” There were six to seven bears in concrete cubicles. Their fur was hanging off, they were begging for food, and an employee was tossing one bear cub around by the scruff of his neck. Beverly said she had an uncomfortable confrontation with the person who was mishandling the cub and was asked to leave. I remember her saying, “The prisoners at Guantanamo Bay are treated better than these bears, who have done nothing.”


I contacted my friends at PETA, and they sent a staff member and a bear expert to investigate. They reported that the situation was much worse than what the Young family had witnessed. There are actually three roadside zoos in Cherokee—Cherokee Bear Zoo, Chief Saunooke Bear Park and Santa’s Land. They house close to 30 bears in unimaginably awful conditions. The bears are confined to desolate concrete pits or cramped cages where they often pace back and forth, walk in endless circles, get into fights with each other, cry and whimper and beg tourists to throw food at them. They have no dirt to dig in or trees to climb—just the same four walls every single day of their lives.

Accompanied by representatives from PETA and the Performing Animal Welfare Society (PAWS) sanctuary in California, I went to Cherokee to appeal to Michell Hicks, principal chief of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, to intervene in behalf of these beautiful animals. Before the meeting, I planned to visit these zoos to see the conditions for myself. I guess the owners of the two facilities where bears live in pits were too ashamed to let me see what was going on there because they refused to let me in.

I told Chief Hicks that I’m not an expert on bears. I’m an expert on giving away refrigerators. But I can tell you that these bears are not properly housed or fed. Cherokee has a rich cultural history and much to be proud of. The cruel bear displays are a glaring blemish on the area, and I hope that the members of the Tribal Council for the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians will open their hearts and do the right thing by shutting them down.

The good people of Cherokee welcomed me warmly, and many told me they agreed that the bears are kept in deplorable conditions. Bears are very intelligent, active and curious animals. They need room to roam, natural surroundings to investigate and opportunities to forage, climb and dig dens.

EEarlier in my career, I hosted a show called Truth or Consequences. I closed the show by saying, “… hoping all your consequences are happy ones!” I hope with all my heart that Chief Hicks and the tribal council will make the consequences for the Cherokee bears happy ones. Until then, my heart and my conscience won’t allow me to do anything but ask people to stay away from Cherokee and voice their support for allowing the bears to retire to a sanctuary.

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