COLUMBIA STATION, Ohio — A bear fatally mauled its caretaker during a feeding on property holding dozens of other exotic pets owned by a man who drew the wrath of activists — and lost his license to exhibit — after offering people the chance to wrestle bears at a Cleveland expo.
The bear in the attack southwest of Cleveland was not one that owner Sam Mazzola had used for wrestling, officials said. His license to show animals had been revoked, but he apparently was still allowed to keep them on his property, which housed a menagerie including several bears, 20 wolves, tigers and lions.
A rescue squad took Mazzola to a hospital Thursday night with an unspecified medical problem that Lorain County Sheriff's Capt. James Drozdowski said was not from any injury. Mazzola, who had filed for bankruptcy this year, returned to his home around noon Friday and did not comment.
The 24-year-old caretaker, Brent Kandra, of Elyria, died Friday morning at MetroHealth Medical Center, the coroner's office in Cleveland said. He had been taken by medical helicopter after the Thursday evening attack in Columbia Township.
The bear was out of its cage for its feeding, "which was normal for this particular bear because the caretaker and the owner had been around it so much," Drozdowski said. Mazzola used a fire extinguisher to force the bear back into its cage.
"We don't know whether something startled the bear or what prompted the bear to get aggressive with the caretaker," Drozdowski said. "We do know that it got aggressive with the caretaker and mauled him severely."
There are no plans to euthanize the bear, Drozdowski said. Authorities will investigate before deciding on any criminal charges.
Kandra was an experienced worker who helped Mazzola maintain the compound, the owner's attorney, John Frenden, said Friday. He released a brief statement from friends of the two saying the caretaker had worked for Mazzola for more than six years.
Kandra "was trained to handle these animals, and he has done so with love and affection," the statement said. "Our family and friends' hearts and prayers go out to Brent's family and loved ones. He will be missed by all who knew him, and especially the animals he cared for."
The property held about seven to nine bears and 20 wolves, and possibly a lion and three or four tigers, Drozdowski said.
Mazzola said in a bankruptcy filing in May in federal court in Cleveland that he owned two white tigers, two Bengal tigers, an African lion, eight bears and 12 wolves. The filing also listed "Ceasar the Wrestling Bear" as a trademark Mazzola held.
Mazzola's street divides Cleveland's outer suburbs from rural Lorain County, with an upscale development on the suburban side and older, widely separated homes on the other. His gate was closed Friday with a no-trespassing sign posted, and sheriff's deputies were posted nearby.
Raymond O'Leary, a retired Cleveland police officer who lives in the development, said it was like living "next to the zoo." He said it was worrisome knowing there were exotic animals in the neighborhood.
"It's a concern to all of us," said O'Leary, 76. "We can hear the animals in the evening, at feeding time, roaring over there."
When he moved into the area two years ago, he said, a neighbor showed him a video of a tiger loose on their street. "They caught the tiger" without incident, O'Leary said.
Mazzola used to offer people the chance to pay to wrestle a black bear at the annual Cleveland Sport, Travel & Outdoor Show. People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, based in Norfolk, Va., four years ago made Mazzola a focus of its national efforts to ban bear wrestling and demanded that the U.S. Department of Agriculture take away his license to exhibit exotic animals.
Mazzola had permits to keep the bear and other animals on his property, Drozdowski said, but apparently didn't have a license to show them and had prior convictions for illegally transporting and selling animals.
He pleaded guilty in September 2009 in federal court to taking a black bear to Toledo without a license, records show. He also pleaded guilty to selling a skunk without a license at a pet store he operated and trying to sell another skunk.
The complaint said he hadn't had the right license since 2006. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service.
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Messages were left Friday for U.S. Agriculture Department officials and for PETA.
Bear attacks in the wild have already killed at least two people this year.
Federal wildlife officials in June tracked down and killed a grizzly bear suspected of fatally mauling a man in Wyoming. A grizzly bear mauled three campers in Montana in late July, leaving one man dead and two people with serious injuries.
Associated Press reporters Lisa Cornwell in Cincinnati and Andrew Welsh-Huggins in Columbus, Ohio, contributed to this report.