BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana officials said Tuesday they will not challenge a wildlife company's refusal to kill a captive 500-pound brown bear involved in the fatal mauling of an animal trainer.
State officials requested last week that the bear be killed immediately, yet do not appear to have the legal authority to order its death, Fish and Wildlife Administrator Dave Risley said.
But the bear nicknamed Yosemite is still considered a potential threat to public safety. It's likely to be permanently barred from leaving the property of Animals of Montana, Inc., Risley said.
"It had blood on it," Risley said of Yosemite after the Nov. 4 mauling of 24-year-old Benjamin Cloutier. "Was it a participant? Was it a bystander? We don't have any way of telling ... We're not going to ask again (for the bear to be killed) but we probably will never let that bear offsite again."
Animals of Montana charges fees for customers to film and photograph captive animals at its Bozeman-area property and elsewhere.
A second bear, known as Griz, was shot on the scene after Cloutier, originally of York Haven, Pa., was killed while cleaning the bears' pen with the animals inside.
Although Yosemite was not considered the prime culprit, Risley said the animal "will always be suspect." He added that the case has revealed the weak authority state officials wield over menagerie-type businesses such as Animals of Montana.
The company's head trainer, Demetri Price, said it was premature to suggest a permanent ban on off-site work for Yosemite. He said Animals of Montana was abiding by a temporary ban against off-site work imposed by state wildlife officials.
Price contended that the blood on Yosemite on Nov. 4 likely came from the animal rubbing its head in a pool of Cloutier's blood — not from participating in the mauling. Immediately after the killing, Griz was guarding over the body in an indication that he was responsible, Price said.
The advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals filed a complaint Tuesday with federal safety officials alleging Cloutier's death could have been avoided.
PETA's Delcianna Winders said Animals of Montana failed to follow standard safety procedures used by zoos and other institutions by allowing Cloutier into the bears' pen while the animals were inside.
U.S. Department of Labor spokesman Jose Carnevali confirmed the Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the case, but declined to discuss details. An agency investigator has interviewed Animals of Montana employees twice since the mauling, Price said.
Price said employees stressed to the agency that their animal handling practices are different than those of other companies and institutions with captive animals because of the nature of their work.
To make sure Animals of Montana's bears, leopards and other captive wildlife behave appropriately when paid customers are on-site, Price said daily, unfettered contact between trainer and animals is essential.
"We don't have animals that are to be looked at and not touched. It's the exact opposite. We need to work one on one with our animals in any situation," Price said. "This is a separate standard from a zoo-type arrangement. We are absolutely not a zoo."
He said some animals that become "cranky" when they get older are separated from their keeper during cleaning and feeding times.
Since Cloutier's death, Wardens from Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks have been reviewing the company's roadside menagerie license. No decision has been reached on whether it will keep it.
Risley said that will come after federal agencies complete their investigation into a death that Gallatin County Sheriff Brian Gootkin said was an accident.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture also is investigating the mauling. Officials hope to determine if treatment of the captive animals could have contributed to Cloutier's death, said spokesman David Sacks with the agency's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service.
A California photography teacher who visited Animals of Montana in September said he felt safe bringing a small group of his students there.
"The bears responded to them (their trainers) incredibly well," said David McKay, who has a photography studio in El Dorado Hills, Calif. "The safety of us or anybody else was never in question."
Animals of Montana lost its state license in 2009 after the revocation of its required animal exhibition license from the Department of Agriculture. That federal action stemmed from a 2005 misdemeanor animal trafficking conviction against the company's owner, Troy Hyde, Department of Agriculture documents show.
The licenses were re-instated last year, according to federal and state officials. No violations of federal animal welfare laws were found during three inspections since the license was restored, according to the USDA.