CHARLOTTE, NC (Joe Marusak/The Charlotte Observer) - Four grizzly bears living in concrete pits at a Western North Carolina bear zoo are "one step closer" to freedom thanks to a court ruling this week, according to a coalition of concerned residents advocating for the bears' release.
The ruling by a federal appeals court favored two tribal leaders from the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians who contend the bears' living conditions at Cherokee Bear Zoo and Exotic Animals violate the Endangered Species Act of 1973.
In their lawsuit, Peggy Hill and Amy Walker said the bears appeared to be listless when they saw them pacing and begging for food in 2013. Patrons fed the bears apples and dry bread sold by the zoo, the lawsuit said. Each pit had a small pool of water but lacked vegetation and shade, according to Hill and Walker.
The lawsuit was filed against the zoo's owners, Barry and Collette Coggins.
On Monday, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals in Richmond, Va., reversed a U.S. District Court ruling in March that the bears' treatment "does not amount to an unlawful taking" under the Endangered Species Act.
The appeals court returned the case to district court for further review.
The Coalition for the Cherokee Bears praised the appeals court's decision.
"This ruling is a win for the four grizzly bears kept in the archaic and virtually barren concrete pits at the Cherokee Bear Zoo and for the Endangered Species Act, which provides vital protection for these threatened animals held in captivity," the coalition said in a statement on its website.
"These grizzly bears should be exploring a vast, natural habitat at a reputable wildlife sanctuary and not begging for food from tourists from their pits," the coalition said. "The Fourth Circuit's ruling brings them one step closer to this goal."
No one answered the phone at the zoo or the couple's home on Wednesday. The couple did not return a message left by the Observer on Collette Coggins' cell phone.
Most comments on the zoo's Facebook page side squarely with the bears.
While a couple of posts praised the zoo, with one woman saying the grizzlies are treated "better than most people's children," most commentators urged the operation to close.