(Reuters) - The fatal mauling of a Montana animal trainer last year could have been prevented if captive grizzly bears had been properly secured while he cleaned their cage, federal regulators said on Tuesday.
Benjamin Cloutier was cleaning the enclosure of two grizzlies in November when the deadly mauling occurred at Animals of Montana, a business in Bozeman that trains captive-bred animals for films, commercials and public appearances.
Animals of Montana faces up to $9,000 in fines proposed by the Labor Department for workplace safety violations that included subjecting employees to potential attacks from bears and other dangerous animals, according to a citation and penalty notice released on Tuesday by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The death of Cloutier, 24, was the first in Montana linked to the some 20 captive animal facilities, including zoos, licensed by the state.
A subsequent inspection of Animals of Montana by federal officials showed the business did 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. They suggested a remedy would be to install holding areas in all enclosures to ensure bears and other dangerous animals could not engage workers cleaning or performing other tasks in cages.
Animals of Montana is facing a proposed fine of $7,000 for that safety violation and a $2,000 penalty for failing to report the work-related death to federal authorities.
Chuck Watson, attorney for Animals of Montana’s owner and principal trainer, Troy Hyde, told Reuters in an interview in November that the bears were not considered a risk as they were routinely exposed to people. The facility was given a permit in 2005 for the bears, which were purchased from an out-of-state vendor.
Hyde could not be reached for comment on Tuesday. The company has 15 days to pay or contest the violations or ask for an informal conference with federal officials to discuss the issue.
Watson said on Tuesday that he is convinced “Troy is not aware he was violating any law or regulation if indeed he did that.”
Another trainer with Animals of Montana killed the more aggressive of the two grizzlies shortly after the fatal mauling.
Reporting by Laura Zuckerman in Salmon, Idaho; Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Eric Beech