ASHEVILLE, N.C. -- The owners of the Cherokee Bear Zoo, Collette and Barry Coggins are defendants in a US District Court case that alleges they violated the Endangered Species Act by keeping four grizzly bears in concrete pits.
Opening arguments began Thursday at 9am inside the Federal Courthouse in downtown Asheville.
Peggy Hill, one of two plaintiffs in the case, testified in the morning about a visit she made to the zoo in March of 2013 after seeing a video compilation that included video of the bears in captivity on-line.
She said the visit was extremely upsetting for her. She is a member of the Eastern Band of Cherokee and explained to the court that the "bear is held in high honor and is sacred to us."
Hill testified that she "saw two bears, I assumed were grizzly. I saw two in the pit and two in an adjacent pit." Hill said the pits were concrete.
"There was no vegetation in the pits," said Hill. "No shade for the bears. There was a small pool of water. One was lying there, unable to get up. It looked liked to me he didn't have any energy to get up. The other was begging for food." Hill said she observed the bears in 2013 for about twenty to thirty minutes. "There was nothing that could stimulate those bears in the pit. It was all concrete."
Plaintiff's attorneys are trying to prove the bears are being kept in inhumane and cruel conditions which would be a violation of the Endangered Species Act.
Attorneys said they want the Coggins to improve conditions for the bears. A major hurdle for the plaintiff's attorneys is to prove the bears are grizzlies, which is a specific species of brown bear protected by the Federal Act.
Defense attorney Mark Melrose who is representing the Coggins said there are consistent inspections of the zoo pits by USDA inspectors.
Norbert Santoyo who works for the Coggins at the Cherokee zoo testified he is the main caretaker. Santoyo who has worked for at the zoo for 15 years, said the bears are called Elvis, Marge, Lucky and Layla.
Santoyo testified he feeds the bears a variety of foods from steak and other meat to strawberries, honey, and apples. It was clear during his testimony Santoyo is attached to the bears.
"I love them. I do my best for the bears," said Santoyo.
On cross-examination Santoyo acknowledged the bears had alopecia and that a vet named Dr. Ackerman had prescribed medication called ivermectin that Santoyo said he applied to the bears every two weeks.
Santoyo also testified that USDA officials come to inspect the zoo and the bear pits every three months.
He testified he's not notified when inspectors are coming. He also testified a veterinarian comes monthly to perform checks on the bears.
Plaintiffs attorneys brought in an expert witness Dr. Ed Ramsay who teaches zoological medicine at the University of Tennessee.
Ramsay testified he examined the bears November 2014, and felt the bears were, in fact, grizzly bears for several reasons. He said vet records and documentation indicated the bears were considered grizzlies by the zoo owners as well as caretakers. He said the bears have a noticeable hump consistent with a grizzly bear.
The burden of proof is on plaintiff's attorneys to show the bears are living in inhumane conditions.
While the zoo has long been a controversial tourist attraction on the Cherokee reservation, the owners do not have to abide by national zoo accreditation standards or state laws because the zoo is on the reservation. It's unclear who may be funding the lawsuit, plaintiffs attorneys would not answer if it was an animal rights group such as PETA or the HSUS.
The Endangered Species Act, however, does apply to the reservation. There is no prior case-law involving such an allegation of animal cruelty using the Act, so the case now being heard in the US District court is a test case. Testimony continues Friday.
Attorneys for the Zoo and Barry Coggins both said they would comment after the case is complete. But it could be weeks or months before the Judge makes a decision since there is a large amount of material to read submitted as evidence.