Bear pits are the bare pits


Biting bars in desperation; PETA photo–click image

Kathleen Stachowski Other Nations

Financial greed is a huge motivator for our species–ain’t no new news here–so I don’t wonder about the callous low-lifes who imprison bears in concrete pits and sell tickets to gawk at ’em. I DO wonder about the ones who buy the tickets, though. What motivates them? Are they callous? Are they clueless? We’ll hear from them later.

You’ve probably read about the latest undercover sting at the Chief Saunooke Bear Park. It’s a PETA investigation, so there’s been plenty of press. Cherokee, NC in the sylvan Smoky Mountains is the setting for this, our latest installment of It’s a Speciesist Life.

These bear parks are a lot like zoos, only worse. There appears to be no attempt (however futile) at creating faux natural habitats and “enrichment”–a favorite zoo buzzword. I’ve already written about the tiny, 15-acre zoo in my hometown that houses grizzlies, mountain lions, numerous tigers, and more–a collection of circling, pacing inmates for whom “enrichment” includes perfumes and jelly beans, just to keep things natural:

 “Offering zoo animals enrichment is something that is necessary for the animals to be able to…act like animals do, being able to show natural behaviors and instincts,” said (the) curator and carnivore keeper. … “Enrichment is something that keeps the animals (sic) minds and bodies healthy.”

…Perfumes and colognes introduce a different scent into the animal’s environment, triggering natural reactions, such as marking the territory. “It really gets their senses going and they start to investigate” (source).

bears love itMay we suggest “Eternity” by Calvin Klein? Because that’s what wild zoo animals are condemned to–an eternity of crazy-making incarceration with no parole. Now imagine bears in roadside cages and pits in the South, and suddenly your garden-variety zoo looks like Club Fed compared to a North Korean slammer.

Read for yourself about the neglect and deprivation, and watch Bob Barker’s narrated video. Then let’s examine how one internet travel site––promotes the Chief Saunooke Bear Park on its “Bear Pits of the Smokies” page (excerpt):

Bear pit attractions…give tourists the opportunity to walk around the perimeter of man-made concrete pits inhabited by bears. For a small fee, the attraction supplies hunks of stale bread and sectioned apples. You stand on the edge of a pit, yell “Hey, bear!” and hurl the food down at their snouts.

There are no skinny bears in bear pits. They are constantly fed – even when there are no tourists — and pass the time completely sheltered from their natural habitat. Imagine yourself abducted by aliens and kept in a big TV room for 80 years or so, with 2000 channels and all the chips ‘n’ dip you could eat. Wait — that is your natural habitat… bad analogy.

Ha ha, 2000 channels, chips ‘n’ dip–what’s not to love? Cry-baby bears! Of course, the bears aren’t in a “big” room, and they’ve got just one grim channel (call it the reality-horror channel), and, according to the investigation, food is sometimes withheld–but it’s oh-so-easy to joke away our culpability and their suffering and get on with business. gives a minimal nod to protests at another area bear attraction, but immediately retreats with, “Still, they love their bears…which they tell us were rescued from a bankrupt Indiana zoo that reportedly was going to sell them to a hunter as live game.” offers 23 reviews of Chief Saunooke’s–12 of them posted on or after January 7, the day PETA’s latest news release was made available (this was not the first time PETA investigated here). Those 12 posters were consistently outraged at the conditions the bears endure, four of them mentioning PETA in their comments. Of the remaining 11 reviews–all posted before January 7–four were negative owing to the bears’ plight; four were mixed; and two were positive. (And one reviewer didn’t even mention the bears.) Of the two positive reviews, one–a Delaware visitor–was so enthusiastic that the bear park would do well to put her on the payroll. (Click on the photo accompanying the reviews to open her slideshow.) Bears seemed “SO happy,” bears seemed “really happy and well cared for” and “happy and active”; compared to other nearby bear attractions, this one offered “the MOST amount of BEARS for the money!” “I was glad my daughter could see bears up close, which she may never be able to do in the wild,” said the other positive reviewer, while acknowledging that “…if you don’t like zoos, this would be a good place to avoid.”

Click to contact USDA via PETA

It was the mixed reviews I found most interesting–people revealing their conflicted feelings practically while mining their wallets for the admission fee. “While it is a little sad, it is well worth the money.” “Exciting time feeding the bears and watching them do tricks for food but sad because they need more room to move.” “Part of me was excited and could not get enough of the interaction with the Bears. Then the other side of me was sad that the bears were in captivity. …I enjoyed the interaction but couldn’t help but think about the poor conditions.”  “I probably will stop by again, just because of kids. If you have any love or respect for wildlife, you will see why I am not impressed with the living areas of the bear.”

How do we reach these people? They already see some of the injustice; how do we help them see the full picture? Can we smooth the path that leads away from exploitation, helping them tip the balance of concern from their own fleeting gratification to the bears’ well-being? How best to encourage their nascent awareness and compassion for another species? For all species? Can we convince them that exposing their children to injustice isn’t a kindness to either child or bear and only creates another generation of bear pit enthusiasts? Is this even our responsibility? Don’t we–and the animals–need them on our side? Let’s not forget that many of us once belonged to their ranks.

Questions overwhelm answers–ain’t no new news here. It’s a sure thing, though, that dismissing these people–and they are legion–with eye-rolling contempt gains nothing and leaves them adrift in a speciesist world that offers every encouragement to stay the course.

6 Responses

  1. I’m ashamed to admit that I was once one of those people. My love for animals was so strong that I would do anything to get close to them, even though their pain and frustration and suffering was so evident to me. Even now, as a 3-year vegan, although I won’t ever go back to a zoo or exhibit because I refuse to financially support such enterprises, sometimes I wish I could just in order to be a witness to their suffering and to educate others who attend. But if I woke up, perhaps others will, too. We need more sanctuaries, that’s for sure.

  2. Rebecca, it speaks volumes about your honesty that you’re willing to admit you were once one of those people. I’m guessing that many or most of us were. Please cut yourself some slack and rather than shame, feel proud, or empowered–whatever the right word is–that you’ve found your way to the place you’re in now. It’s a huge accomplishment to overcome a lifetime of conditioning that teaches us to disregard animals, that their lives are of no consequence. Kudos to you, me, and everyone else who has overcome that or is in the process of becoming.

  3. Thank you for this excellent piece. It leaves one in anguish.

    I agree that contempt is pointless (but hard to avoid). What we need are 1000 Bob Barkers to flood the mass media with well-designed ad campaigns about nonhuman suffering. On a more modest scale, we can each take every opportunity that presents itself to speak out nonjudgmentally against these and similar atrocities. The mixed review types CAN be reached with a little moral suasion.

    Rebecca, you comment is wonderful.

  4. Reading those comments that echo the same sentiment that “While it is a little sad, it is well worth the money.” remind me of how I know those who patronize circuses feel and think. As they pass the signs held by protesters showing whipped and chained elephants it’s a certainty that these relatively smart people understand the problems… And then once and a while they’ll even say “Yeah, it’s awful… But the kids love it so!”. I have no idea either on how to reach these thoughtless voyeurs except to take every opportunity to educate people when and where we can.

    After all… We all got here to a place of compassionate thinking – We have to expect and insist that others rise to the challenge as well.

    On a lighter note Kathleen – I just love your clever inference to the Eternity fragrance. Your mind and wit are sharp as a tack! Thank you!

  5. The practice of keeping bears in concrete pits seem indefensible from any point of view.

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