Benjamim Cloutier, 24, was killed in November while cleaning the pens of two 500-pound Syrian brown bears—named Griz and Yosemite—at Animals of Montana near Bozeman Montana, where he worked as an animal trainer. The company provides captive-bred predators and other animals for photography, commercials, public appearances and motion pictures.
Cloutier was originally from York Haven, Pa. He had worked as a trainer at the company since 2008 and had been in the bear enclosure hundreds of times, according to Demetrius Price, head animal trainer.
This was the first death in Montana linked directly to some 20 captive-animal facilities, including zoos, licensed by the state, according to Reuters.
Griz, one of the bears, was shot at the scene of the mauling by Price. Montana wildlife officials requested that the second bear, Yosemite, also be killed to protect public safety, but the company refused. There was no blood on Yosemite and Price described the bear at the time as possibly just a "bystander" during the mauling.
The state's investigation into the mauling turned up allegations of numerous animal escapes from the company that were not reported as required under the company's roadside menagerie permit, said Andrea Jones with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks..
Federal authorities are proposing $9,000 in fines--$7,000 for that safety violation and a $2,000 penalty for failing to report the work-related death to federal authorities--and claim in a statement issued Tuesday that Cloutier’s death could have been prevented if standard safety practices had been followed.
Although the amount seems small considering the loss of a life, it is maximum penalty in such a case for a business that employs 25 or fewer people, authorities said.
Park County officials concluded the death was accidental, and no criminal charges were pursued.
In proposing the fines, the U.S. Department of Labor said the circumstances of Cloutier's death violated federal workplace safety rules, which prohibit employees to have direct contact with bears and other dangerous animals, and also claim that the company did not promptly report Cloutier's death, according to the citation and penalty notice released by Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) on Tuesday.
Jeff Funke, area director for OSHA, contends that the death could have been prevented if the bears had been kept in a separate enclosure while their pen was cleaned. "Those types of apex predators-- it's common knowledge that they're dangerous," Funke said. "If this were a (captive) bird or a raven or something else it would have been a different story."
Troy Hyde, owner of Animals of Montana, responds that putting trainers inside the cages of predatory animals" is absolutely something we must do. "Those people don't understand…We're not a zoo."
"We work inside a business that's a highly dangerous business, and everybody that works within this business is very aware of the dangers," he told The Associated Press.
Hyde repeated his earlier claim that Cloutier must have been unconscious before the mauling, possibly from a fall, because there were no defensive wounds such as bite marks on his hands. Funke said investigators considered that possibility but found no evidence of a fall. "From our perspective it was clearly an attack from a bear," he said.
According to the company, its captive bears are used in "attack re-enactments," for films and trainers are used as stuntmen. However, since Cloutier's death, state wildlife officials have declared they will not allow Yosemite to be used offsite, said Andrea Jones with Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks.
State officials disclosed that escapes experienced at Animals of Montana prior to the death of Benjamin Cloutier include a black panther, a pair of breeding lions and a wolf pup, Jones said, adding that the escapes only came to authorities' attention when neighbors reported them after the death of the young animal trainer, according to NPR.com.
Also, a 2004 injury to an Animals of Montana worker by a mountain lion—originally reported to the state as a "scratch"—turned out to be a scalp laceration that cut down to the worker's skull, Jones said. A doctor told investigators the man could have been killed if another employee had not sprayed the lion with bear spray.
Jones said because some of the unreported events occurred almost a decade ago, no official action could be taken now. However, she said if there are any future incidents of this type, the company could risk losing its permit.
Adam Roberts, vice president of Born Free USA, an animal-advocacy group that tracks such incidents across the country, told the Associated Press it's not unusual for captive animals to turn on their handlers and emphasizes that Coultier’s death underscores a serious lack of sufficient government regulations for facilities that keep exotic animals.
"So often we're derided as naysayers, but every time an incident like this happens it just shows how inappropriate wild animals are in captivity," Roberts said.
Inspectors found that the business does not provide a workplace “free from recognized hazards that were causing or likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees” because it allowed direct contact with dangerous animals during cleaning of their cages, according to the notice. Federal regulators ordered the company to end that “hazardous practice” by May 23.
Animals of Montana has 15 days to comply with the OSHA fine, contest the violations or request an informal conference on the matter. Hyde said he had not yet had a chance to review the nine-page violation letter and said no decision had been made on whether to challenge the citations.