IMAGE: Bear wrestler
Jamie-Andrea Yanak  /  AP file
Lance Palmer wrestles 650-pound Ceaser Jr. during an exhibition wrestling match at a sportsmen's show at the I-X Center in Cleveland on March 18.
updated 3/25/2006 10:15:18 AM ET 2006-03-25T15:15:18

Lance Palmer, a 140-pound high school wrestler and four-time state champ, taps into his wrestling skill whenever he takes on Ceaser Jr.

Skill comes in handy when your opponent is a 650-pound black bear.

Palmer recently wrestled Ceaser at the annual Cleveland Sport, Travel & Outdoor Show, pinning the animal on its back.

Plenty of criticism
Although he says he never hurts the bear, Palmer and the bear’s owner have been criticized by animal rights groups. Norfolk, Va.-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has sought to make owner Sam Mazzola a focal point of its national efforts to ban bear wrestling.

PETA is demanding that the U.S. Department of Agriculture revoke Mazzola’s license to exhibit exotic animals. For a small fee, Mazzola allows people to wrestle the bear or have a picture taken inside a cage with his other bears or a tiger.

“Sam Mazzola continues to flout federal regulations and expose the public to very real danger,” said Debbie Leahy, PETA director. “Bear wrestling is as ludicrous as it sounds, and it’s high time that it was relegated to the dustbin of history.”

Mazzola said bear wrestling has been part of his business — World Animal Studios Inc., in Columbia Station in northeast Ohio — for over 20 years, and he has no intention of stopping now. Most of his shows are at county fairs within the state. PETA says bear wrestling is banned in 20 states, but not in Ohio.

“To be able to bring an animal out into the public and do what we do is not easy. I mean we’re talking about a bear! Do you even realize how much work, time and love we put into that? It’s like nobody stops to realize that,” Mazzola said.

Randy Coleman, a USDA inspector, attended the wrestling match on March 18 but declined comment.

'They will play with you all day'
Palmer, 19, a senior at St. Edward High School in the Cleveland suburb of Lakewood, has been wrestling bears since he was four years old. His father is an animal trainer for Mazzola.

Palmer, who gets paid by Mazzola, said he’s had a few scratches and bruises wrestling bears, but no serious injuries. He views it as another training method, even if there’s potential for danger. But he said animal rights activists are misguided.

“Bears are probably eight times stronger than people,” said Palmer, who is headed to Ohio State as a collegiate wrestler. “If they wanted to, they could do a whole lot of damage to people. But if they are having fun, like Ceaser was, then they will play with you all day.”

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