Mark Duncan  /  AP
"Noah", left, and "Layla" prowl their enclosure at Stump Hill Farm in Massillon, Ohio, on Aug. 25. A fatal bear attack in Ohio last week has intensified a battle over a looming ban on owning dangerous wild pets that pits anti-cruelty activists against animal owners, both saying they have the beasts' best interests at heart.
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updated 8/31/2010 2:52:11 PM ET 2010-08-31T18:52:11

The bear that recently killed a caretaker in a Cleveland suburb was the latest example of animal violence in a state that has some of the nation's weakest restrictions on exotic pets and among the highest number of injuries and deaths caused by them.

After a standoff between the Humane Society and agriculture interests, state officials are crafting restrictions on the ownership of dangerous wild pets. But the killer beast and others owned by former bear-wrestling entrepreneur Sam Mazzola, who was on probation at the time of the attack for illegally selling and transporting exotic animals, would have been grandfathered out of them.

"It's just a free-for-all in Ohio, and Sam Mazzola is just an example of that," said Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States. "Tigers, wolves, bears in a suburban Lorain County community: It is a disaster waiting to happen."

The death in Ohio and attacks elsewhere — including the maiming of a Connecticut woman by her friend's pet chimpanzee and a 2-year-old Florida girl squeezed to death by her family's python — highlight that the patchwork of federal, state and local laws on keeping dangerous wild animals at home has holes.

Mazzola had the proper state permit to keep the black bear, a species native to Ohio, on his property. He also kept wolves, tigers and a lion, something he was free to do because Ohio and at least four other states — Alabama, Idaho, Missouri and Montana — impose few or no restrictions on the ownership of non-native animals kept solely as pets, according to a review of state regulations by The Associated Press.

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The U.S. Department of Agriculture regulates animals exhibited to the public but not private ownership. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service requires permits for native endangered and threatened species but doesn't track non-native, endangered species unless they cross state borders.

The Humane Society cut a deal this year with Ohio Gov. Ted Strickland and leading farm groups that traded pulling an animal cruelty measure off the November ballot for certain animal protections, including a ban on exotic pets. Farm groups opposed the ballot measure, which would have imposed treatment and caging requirements on livestock, as threatening to Ohio's $93 billion agricultural industry.

Existing non-native animals, like the ones Mazzola continues to keep, may be kept under Ohio's proposed regulations, but owners would not be able to breed them or replace them when they die.

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The ban also would exempt animals in zoos, research centers and existing athletic mascot programs, Strickland spokeswoman Amanda Wurst said.

'These are the things that happen'
Many exotic pet owners in Ohio and elsewhere believe big animals — especially predators such as lions, tigers, bears and cougars — are no longer safe in the wild because of habitat loss, public fear and poaching. They view themselves as conservationists.

"Of the overall amount of people who actually have snakes as pets, who actually have chimpanzees as pets, these incidents are a very small percentage," said Cindy Huntsman, whose Stump Hill Farm near Massillon houses 250 wild animals.

Image: Brent Kandra
AP
This undated photo released by family shows Brent Kandra, who was killed Aug. 19 by a bear as he let it out of its cage for a routine feeding in northeastern Ohio.

According to a database of publicized exotic-pet escapes and attacks since 1990 kept by the animal rights group Born Free USA, Ohio ranks fifth in the number of episodes that hurt or killed a human — 14. The leader, Florida, has had 43, followed by Texas with 19, New York with 18 and California with 16. Alabama ties Ohio with 14.

The Ohio bear attack occurred Aug. 19 when caretaker Brent Kandra, 24, took the animal out of its cage for feeding at Mazzola's menagerie. Mazzola's federal license to exhibit the bear was revoked after animal rights activists complained about his practice of taking money to let people wrestle Ceasar, another bear he owned. But he was still free to keep the animals.

Most people who work regularly with exotic beasts know and accept the risks, Huntsman said, comparing it to being a farmer or working with killer whales at SeaWorld.

Mazzola reflected that attitude in comments to reporters the day after the fatal attack, showing off a facial scar he got from an encounter with a bear and saying he had a total of 2,000 stitches from his time working with animals.

"These are the things that happen when you deal and love these type of animals," he said.

'There wasn't anything funny about it'
Tom Burrington, 68, a retiree who lives two doors from Mazzola, recalled after the attack that one of the man's bears once rolled over a neighbor, who had to go to the hospital.

"It was a big joke," Burrington said. "They said the bear sat on a guy, but it was not funny to the safety forces. There wasn't anything funny about it."

A federal judge on Friday ordered mental health treatment for Mazzola as new terms of his probation sentence after pleading guilty in 2009 to transporting a bear to Toledo and selling a skunk without a license. Mazzola's attorney didn't return a message Monday seeking comment.

Animal rights groups have used attacks like the one that killed Kandra to push for tougher regulations elsewhere.

After a friend's 200-pound pet chimpanzee mauled and blinded a Connecticut woman in 2009, state lawmakers voted to ban ownership of large primates and other potentially dangerous animals, such as bears, leopards and wolves.

Image: Sam Mazzola
Mark Duncan  /  AP
Ellen Vajda, right, comforts Sam Mazzola outside Mazzola's exotic animal sanctuary in Columbia Station, Ohio, Aug. 20.  A caretaker, Brent Kandra, of Elyria, Ohio, was mauled by a bear at the sanctuary and died later in a Cleveland hospital.

Since the Florida girl was suffocated by her family's Burmese python last year, it has become illegal for individuals there to own them and six other large, exotic reptile species.

Risks of exotic pet ownership
Born Free USA considers it inhumane to keep large, wild animals in captivity even if they don't hurt anyone, Executive Vice President Adam Roberts said.

Exotic pet ownership also includes the risk of infectious disease, damage to the environment when pets are set free or escape, and a growing financial burden on animal rescue groups that run sanctuaries for animals that are abandoned, he said.

The Association of Zoos & Aquariums recommends against exotic pet ownership in part because of the lethal diseases wild animals can carry: distemper and rabies in carnivores; herpes in monkeys; and salmonella in reptiles. Vaccines used on domestic animals often don't work on their wild cousins, the group notes.

"People see wild animals and they see them as cute, as something they want to have, want to hold, want to covet," Roberts said. "Then they get bigger and more dangerous and the owner is in over their head."

___

Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford, Conn., Bill Kaczor in Tallahassee, Fla., and Tom Sheeran in Cleveland contributed to this report.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Bear at private zoo kills caretaker

  1. Transcript of: Bear at private zoo kills caretaker

    MATT LAUER, co-host: Now to a savage attack at an exotic animal facility in Ohio , a worker mauled to death by a bear. TODAY national correspondent Amy Robach has the story. Amy , good morning.

    AMY ROBACH reporting: Good morning, Matt. Brent Kandra loved animals, and for many years he cared for bears at a private animal sanctuary . But it was his favorite black bear , an eight-year-old named Iroquois , who turned on him in a savage attack. And now many are asking, could this tragedy have been prevented? The horror of what happened to Brent Kandra at this exotic animal sanctuary has his friends and family in total shock.

    Mr. ROBERT KANDRA (Victim's Uncle): It's pretty much like a bad dream.

    ABRAMS: The 24-year-old young man was brutally mauled Thursday evening by a 350-pound black bear named Iroquois .

    Mr. SAM MAZZOLA: Something went wrong and he panicked, I panicked.

    ROBACH: When the bear let loose, Sam Mazzola , the compound's owner, immediately called 911.

    Unidentified 911 Operator: Where are his bites on his body?

    Mr. MAZZOLA: On his arms, and I think he's got a collapsed lung. That's my fear.

    Operator: OK. Sir, is he breathing right now?

    Mr. MAZZOLA: No!

    Operator: OK, you just told me he was.

    Mr. MAZZOLA: Now he's not.

    ROBACH: Kandra was rushed to a Cleveland medical center and died hours later. Mazzola says the exact details of the attack are too traumatic to recount. But what started as friendly play suddenly became very violent.

    Mr. MAZZOLA: It's probably the hardest thing I've ever been through in my life.

    ROBACH: Brent Kandra loved the bears, tigers and wolves at the sanctuary. They're all rescued or retired from the entertainment industry.

    Mr. KANDRA: He's pretty much had an animal in his life all his life.

    ROBACH: But Mazzola , the owner, has come under fire from animal activists in the past for running bear wrestling acts. And he's faced troubles with the US Department of Agriculture for publicly exhibiting exotic animals without the proper license.

    Unidentified Woman: It's tragic, and it could have been prevented.

    ROBACH: Mazzola stands by his record.

    Mr. MAZZOLA: I can honestly say that, you know, we've had a perfect safety record.

    ROBACH: Bear attacks are rare, but certainly not unheard of. Just last month a mother grizzly went on a murderous rampage in Montana .

    Ms. DEB FREELE (Bear Attack Victim): I couldn't believe the strength of this animal. And like, I could just feel everything crushing.

    ROBACH: While her cubs watched, she attacked three campers, mauling one to death. Now another community mourns for a young life lost gone way too soon.

    Mr. MAZZOLA: I loved Brent . I"m going to miss him more than anything in the whole world. But it's what we wanted to do.

    ROBACH: And at the wishes of Kandra 's family, the black bear that killed him has now been euthanized. Investigators are working to determine if any criminal charges may be filed in this case, Matt.

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