I have been watching the story in Smoky Mountain News regarding PETA and the caged bears in Cherokee with some interest and have a couple of observations.
First, reporter Julia Merchant states in her piece “PETA targets bear zoos in national campaign” (SMN 7/1/09) that PETA, “… only recently got wind of the practice …” and noted that, “… the exhibition of bears as a way to lure tourists is hardly new to Cherokee. In fact, it was once much more common.”
The practice of exploiting bears was, indeed, once more common. Bears chained in even worse (than current) conditions along roadsides and Tuffy Truesdale’s Victor — the wrestling bear — were prominent attractions. This treatment, however, did not escape the attention of PETA (People for the ethical treatment of animals) nor, for that matter, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS).
There is no reason Merchant should know this bit of history because it happened long before she came to the region and before Smoky Mountain News came into being. From the mid to late 1980s and perhaps into the early 1990s, area animal activists spearheaded an effort to end the practice of roadside bears. PETA and HSUS offered support and provided national exposure. In fact, PETA helped organize a demonstration advocating an end to this practice. The demonstration drew a large crowd of supporters. I would estimate more than 100 of us gathered on Great Smoky Mountains National Park property just outside Cherokee’s northern boundary — we couldn’t get a permit for tribal property.
The demonstration was a culmination of months of activism — gathering names on petitions and speaking with tribal leaders. I was part of a small contingent that met with then Principal Chief Jonathan Taylor. Taylor welcomed us graciously, listened attentively, asked pertinent questions regarding animal regulations and, I believe took our message to heart. But we weren’t the only voices heard.
One of the few records I could find regarding the issue — a few paragraphs in the Sept. 17, 1989, Wilmington Morning Star reported that Taylor noted the tribe was receiving, “… about 2,500 letters a year protesting the plight of the caged bears.”
I also recall that the bears had much support from tribal members. Tribal members made up a large percentage of the demonstrators advocating on behalf of the bears. They were also speaking up in tribal council meetings and within their communities.
Cherokee myth exalts the bear with a myriad of fables and for many enrolled members the bear holds a place of respect and admiration. PETA and/or Bob Barker may spark interest in the plight of Cherokee’s bears, but tribal council listens to enrolled members. Yonas’ plight rests, ultimately, in the hands of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians. I am sure Principal Chief Michell Hicks and today’s tribal council are every bit as receptive as Chief Taylor and his government were. I am also sure the spirit of Yonas is as revered today as it was in the 1980s and that the Cherokee people will do the right thing by their bears.