Authorities say fatal Montana bear mauling could have been prevented, proposes $9K in fines

BILLINGS, Mont. - The death of a Montana animal trainer mauled by a pair of 500-pound captive brown bears could have been prevented if standard safety procedures had been followed, federal authorities said Tuesday.

Benjamin Cloutier, 24, was killed in November while cleaning the pens of two Syrian brown bears — named Griz and Yosemite — at Animals of Montana, a private enterprise near Bozeman that provides captive-bred predators and other animals for photography shoots and motion pictures.

The U.S. Department of Labor said the failure on the part of the Bozeman-area company to prevent Cloutier's death violated federal workplace safety rules. The agency proposed $9,000 in fines for allowing employees to have direct contact with bears and for not promptly reporting Cloutier's death.

Investigators determined that the death could have been prevented if the bears had been kept in a separate enclosure while their pen was being cleaned, said Jeff Funke, area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

"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."

But Animals of Montana owner Troy Hyde rejected the assertion that Cloutier's death was preventable, saying putting its trainers inside the cages of its predatory animals "is absolutely something we must do."

"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. "Those people don't understand what we do. We're not a zoo."

Hyde also repeated a claim made in the days after Cloutier's death that he must have fallen, hit his head and been knocked unconscious before the mauling because there were no defensive wounds such as bite marks on his hand.

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.

Of the two bears, Griz was shot at the scene of the mauling by Demetri Price, the company's head trainer. Montana wildlife officials had requested that the second bear also be killed, to protect public safety, but the company refused. Price described Yosemite as a possible "bystander" during the mauling because the bear did not have blood on it.

According to the company, the bears previously had been used in "attack re-enactments" for films in which trainers are used as stuntmen.

Animals of Montana has 15 days to comply with the 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.

Funke said the proposed fine, though relatively small, was the maximum penalty in such a case for a business that employs 25 or fewer people.

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 Price. Price also has said Cloutier was trained and knew what he was doing, and there were no prior problems with the animals owned by the company.

Park County officials concluded the death was accidental, and no criminal charges were pursued.