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OSHA: Deadly mauling preventable

BILLINGS – The death of a Montana animal trainer mauled by a pair of 500-pound captive brown bears could have been prevented if standard safety practices had been followed, federal authorities said Tuesday, as state officials revealed that the private menagerie where the death occurred has seen numerous animal escapes.

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

The U.S. Department of Labor said the circumstances of 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 the death could have been prevented if the bears had been kept in a separate enclosure while their pen was cleaned, said Jeff Funke, area director for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

But Animals of Montana owner Troy Hyde rejected the assertion that Cloutier’s death was preventable, saying putting its trainers inside the cages of 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 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.

Animals of Montana has 15 days to comply with the OHSA fine, contest the violations or request an informal conference on the matter.