Bear Pits of the Smokies
This article was written before Chief Saunooke's Bear Park was shut down in 2013.
Two American bear pits are within an hour's drive of each other, on opposite sides of The Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Chief Saunooke's Bear Park guards the remote western boundary of Cherokee, North Carolina, while Three Bears Gifts sits smack in the middle of one of America's most mind-boggling outlet mall/water park/country music theater strips -- Hwy. 441 in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.
TBG and Saunooke's exist because the Smoky Mountains has an apparently inexhaustible supply of bears. The roly-poly Yogis and Boo-boos pop up everywhere in the Smokies, thanks to years of environmental protection and a burgeoning human population. When they pop up in places they aren't wanted -- say, in the dumpster of a fast foot restaurant -- they could wind up in a pit.
Bear pit attractions, for those unaware, 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.
Of course, not all agree with the treatment of captive bears. The folks at Three Bears Gifts receive daily mail from animal activists, and protests in their parking lot are regular -- if less frequent -- occurrences. Still, they love their bears -- Moma, Papa, Mandy, Baby, Teddy, and Smokey -- which they tell us were rescued from a bankrupt Indiana zoo that reportedly was going to sell them to a hunter as live game.
In the central pit, Smokey falls onto his back and wiggles his paws in the air to an appreciative shower of apples and bread. Moma stands to one side and drags her head back and forth against the cage bars, over and over, oblivious to everything. "Oh, look, Moma's doin' her dance!" our tour guide cheerily informs us, though it looks more like the actions of a stir-crazed lifer -- trying to beat herself into blissful unconsciousness -- than a dance. But, hey, who really knows how bears think anyway?
Chief Saunooke's Bear Park has none of the worries of TGB, partly because it's over the border in North Carolina (which has more lax bear pit laws), partly because it's on the Eastern Cherokee Reservation, and partly because it's right outside Great Smoky Mountain National Park. With a half-million acres of protected mountain woodland on its doorstep, Chief Saunooke's won't run out of bears any time soon.
Chief Saunooke's complex is impressive, stretching along the Oconaluftee River with a gem mine, tubing center, an indoor gift mall, and several different types of bears in an assortment of pits. They even have cuddly cubs. The walkways are just a bit lower than those at TGB -- and the bears are just a bit bigger. When two tons of hungry bear s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-s to grab that food you've been dangling so maddeningly long, it looks great in your viewfinder.
If it also makes you a featured clip on When Animals Attack 7 -- don't say we didn't warn you.