Photo: Asheville Citizens-Times
Clarke Morrison, Asheville Citizen-Times
CHEROKEE, N.C. -- People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has filed a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Agriculture, claiming the agency has failed to protect bears suffering in roadside zoos like one in Cherokee.
The group maintains the federal agency has failed to respond to a petition submitted more than a year ago requesting that rules be developed "to ensure the humane handling, care and treatment of captive bears."
The Agriculture Department is required by law to respond to the petition, but "has taken no meaningful action whatsoever," according to the suit filed last week in U.S. District Court in the District of Columbia.
"Not only has the USDA ignored the egregious neglect of and cruelty to bears, it has also ignored its duty to respond to formal petitions that request action for animals who are in trouble and dependent on agency actions," PETA's Delcianna Winders said.
The 65-page petition, filed in September 2012, cites Cherokee Bear Zoo, where about a dozen bears housed in a concrete pit "are forced to drink from and bathe in the same trough of putrid water and beg tourists for food."
"They pace in endless circles, a sign of chronic disease, yet the USDA refuses to remove the bears or revoke the zoo's license," according to PETA.
The lawsuit asks the court to require the agency to respond to the petition. The complaint claims the federal Animal Welfare Act, which the Agriculture Department enforces, "is woefully inadequate to address bears' unique and complex needs."
"Bear-specific regulations are therefore necessary to ensure that these animals' most basic needs - including nesting materials, denning opportunities and the opportunity to forage and bathe - are afforded to bears in captivity."
The owner of Cherokee Bear Zoo couldn't be reached for comment.
Bear zoos in Cherokee have been the subject of controversy and protests for years.
Last month, two tribal elders of the Eastern Band of the Cherokee Indians filed notice of intent to bring a federal lawsuit against Cherokee Bear Zoo unless it releases the animals to a reputable wildlife sanctuary. Amy Walker and Peggy Hill said the zoo is violating the Endangered Species Act.
"The Cherokee Bear Zoo is an open concrete grave for these intelligent animals and they must be moved from the despicable facility to a place where they'll be cared for, not abused and neglected," Walker said.
Earlier this year, the 11 bears at Chief Saunooke Bear Park in Cherokee were taken to an animal sanctuary in Texas. The move came after the Department of Agriculture suspended the park's exhibitor's license and fined the owner $20,000.
Inspectors found the zoo was failing to provide the bears with proper food, veterinary care and a safe enclosure.