Backed up by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Barker challenged the tribe and Chief Michell Hicks to stop allowing three privately owned zoos to house bears in cages and concrete pits. If the treatment doesn't stop, tourists and their dollars will simply stop visiting the area, said Barker. With its mountain vistas and a Harrah's casino, Cherokee is a top tourist destination in North Carolina.
Barker met with Hicks July 28 and followed up with an Asheville press conference the next day. He called the effort an unqualified success, thanks to the media attention his visit received and the inspiration it's given local animal-rights activists.
"Things are going to change on the Cherokee reservation, I promise," Barker told a small group of news photographers and listeners in a second-floor meeting room at the Renaissance Asheville Hotel. "This is going to be a blight on tourism," he predicted. "Americans love animals, and all they have to know is that animals are being abused."
According to an Associated Press report of the meeting, Hicks let Barker have his say but then defended the local zoo owners, essentially telling Barker to mind his own business. As a recognized Native American tribe, the Eastern Band operates as a sovereign nation. The local zoos are inspected by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for compliance with the federal Animal Welfare Act, and the tribe has an office that performs its own inspections.
Hicks said the tribe may try to help the zoos expand, but he added that Barker's threat of a tourism hit was offensive. "It's best for Bob Barker to stay in California and let us do what we know how to do here," the AP quoted Hicks as saying. Barker, 85, is one-eighth Sioux and grew up on South Dakota's Rosebud Indian Reservation.
In the Asheville press conference, Barker was joined by Beverly Young, the wife of U.S. Rep. Bill Young, a Florida Republican. Barker explained that the Youngs were on a family trip to Cherokee last summer when they visited a zoo and were shocked by what they saw. They called Barker on the spot.
Beverly Young said she couldn't believe how the animals were treated, describing in detail the way a baby bear was fed. A girl was handed a bottle and a baby bear that "had to have been sedated," said Young. After a feeding and a photo opportunity, a handler "grabbed the bear by the back of the neck, jerked it up off the table, took it back to this small cage and flung it into the cage — and he flung it so hard the cage moved."
"What they're doing is not bringing tourism," she declared. "It's turning our stomachs."
Joining Barker at the press conference were Debbie Leahy, director of PETA's Captive Animals Rescue and Enforcement Section, and Ed Stewart, founder of the Performing Animal Welfare Society sanctuary near Sacramento, Calif. Barker said the Cherokee bears should be released to Stewart's sanctuary for care. Longtime Asheville animal-rights activists Terri and Stewart David also attended the meeting.
Stewart David said he's heard complaints about the treatment of the Cherokee bears for years. He said local activists will continue to work on the problem, "but there's just nothing like the media to call some attention" to an issue, and for that, he thanked Barker.