WILMINGTON — Earlier this week, a lawsuit was filed against the Tregembo Animal Park demanding the removal of two bears kept in captivity there. The lawsuit claims the bears’ living conditions are far below minimum requirements set by state law.
However, state laws may not protect the bears. That’s because they are not black bears (Ursus americanus), the only native bear species in North Carolina.
Protecting native animals
According to the lawsuit, filed by New Hanover resident Lorraine Moe and UNCW student Carolina Byrd, the park’s two bears – Ben and Booger – are covered by codified minimum requirements established by the North Carolina general statute and the Wildlife Resources Commission. (You can read the general statutes here, and the WRC regulations for native species here).
Byrd and Moe allege the bears live in conditions that “fail to meet these minimum requirements”
North Carolina state law does set out basic requirements for the captivity of black bears – and other native species – with provisions for both educational and government run facilities, as well another set of requirements for private zoos. The regulations for private zoos – like Tregembo – include a stipulations for shade, trees, and a minimum of one acre of space for one or two bears. For non-native species, however, there are no such provisions.
As the lawsuit points out, Ben and Booger have only 2 percent of an acre each – significantly less than the mandated minimum for black bears.
But, as owner Sherry Tregembo said, neither Ben or Booger are native black bears.
“Booger is Syrian bear, and Ben isn’t a true black bear, he’s a hybrid. He has some grizzly in him,” Tregembo said. “The wildlife commission regulations don’t apply.”
Tregembo added that Ben had been neutered and declawed as a cub before he was rescued by the park, and that he wouldn’t be able to climb any trees added to his enclosure.
The Wildlife Resources Commission doesn’t include Syrian bears in its list of native species, so it appears Tregembo is not obligated to provide Booger with a larger enclosure. However, there is no telling how a judge will rule on the hybrid issue.
Byrd and Moe cite a 2012 Cumberland County legal case, Ray v. Jambbas Ranch Tours, in which Judge Kimbrell K. Tucker issued a permanent injunction against a private zoo for failure to meet WRC guidelines for its captive bear. The Jambass Ranch bear, also named Ben, was identified only as “at least part black bear” in court documents (the case is included as an appendix in Byrd and Moe’s filing).
Accusations of animals’ pain and suffering
Byrd and Moe’s second claim – that Tregembo is causing “unjustifiable pain and suffering” – is based on the broader and simpler North Carolina statute 19A-1:
“The term ‘animals’ includes every living vertebrate in the classes Amphibia, Reptilia, Aves, and Mammalia except human beings. The terms ‘cruelty’ and ‘cruel treatment’ include every act, omission, or neglect whereby unjustifiable physical pain, suffering, or death is caused or permitted,” the statute reads in part.
According to Sherry Tregembo, “Ben did have a bad infection at the time. It was a very rare infection, but we were eventually able to get it under control with different antibiotics, and he’s been clear as bell since then.”
According to Tregembo, the most recent USDA report – performed several weeks ago – showed no violations.
The USDA could not produce the most recent report, but a February 2017 report showed no violations at Tregembo (the report covers all NC licensees, the Tregembo report is on page 176).
PETA and the plaintiffs
Although PETA is not a party to the lawsuit, the group has actively engaged in publicizing it. In a press release, PETA Foundation Director of Captive Animal Law Enforcement Brittany Peet wrote, “Tregembo Animal Park is inflicting unjustifiable physical pain and psychological torment on sensitive bears PETA joins concerned North Carolinians in urging the facility to move these poor animals to a reputable sanctuary where they’d receive the care they desperately need.”
Brian Perle, senior media coordinator for PETA, also relayed comments on the lawsuit from Byrd and Moe.
“I visited TAP many times as a child. As a teenager and adult, as I became more knowledgeable about wild animals, I became increasingly troubled during my visits by the conditions in which the animals, especially the Bears, were confined. Ben is lethargic and obese and Booger spends his days pacing in distress. These bears deserve better living conditions and expert care from a reputable sanctuary,” Byrd wrote.
Moe also commented, saying that the goal of the lawsuit was to get the bears transferred to a “reputable sanctuary.”
PETA also filed a complaint against Tregembo in April of this year. At the time, Terry Espinosa, spokeswoman for the USDA, said the agency was “looking into it,” in reference to the complaint.
On Thursday, Espinosa said there currently no violations at Tregembo and there had not been USDA action against the park since 1991. That enforcement action was for a cracked concrete enclosure that has since been repaired.
Send comments and tips to Benjamin Schachtman at email@example.com, @pcdben on Twitter, and (910) 538-2001.