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Bear gave off no reasons for concern before trainer's death

See Comments below by Steve Stringham

Wed Apr 23, 8:59 AM ET
BIG BEAR LAKE, Calif. -

The grizzly bear that wrestled Will Ferrell's character in the recent film "Semi-Pro" seemed to obediently follow cues which made its killing of its trainer with a bite to the neck all the more stunning.

Three experienced handlers were working with the grizzly Tuesday at the Predators in Action wild animal training center when the bear attacked Stephan Miller, 39, said San Bernardino County sheriff's spokeswoman Cindy Beavers.

Stephan Miller is the cousin of training center owner Randy Miller, she said.
Pepper spray was used to subdue and contain the bear, and there were no other injuries, Beavers said. Paramedics arriving shortly after the initial emergency call around 3 p.m. were unable to revive Stephan Miller.

The state Department of Fish and Game and Occupational Safety and Health Administration were investigating the incident.

Fish and game spokesman Harry Morse told the San Bernardino Sun Tuesday his department would not decide whether the bear will be euthanized because the attack occurred outside its jurisdiction during a training session on facility grounds.

Morse speculated that the county animal care officials may decide the bear's fate. A call placed early Wednesday to the county's Animal Care and Control Program was not answered.

Sheriff's Sgt. Dave Phelps said the bear was a 5-year-old male named Rocky. The Predators in Action Web site said Rocky is 7 1/2 feet tall and weighs 700 pounds.
The site, which was off-line early Wednesday due to overtaxed bandwidth, identified Rocky as the animal that appeared with Ferrell's character in the scene from "Semi-Pro." Randy Miller doubled for Ferrell in the bear wrestling match, according to the site.
Calls seeking comment from Randy Miller were not immediately returned Tuesday evening.

The center, located in the San Bernardino Mountains east of Los Angeles, has two grizzlies, and also trains lions, tigers, leopards, cougars and wolves for uses ranging from film and TV to advertising and education.

In a February interview, Randy Miller called Rocky "the best working bear in the business," the San Bernardino Sun reported on its Web site Wednesday. But, the paper quoted him as saying, "If one of these animals gets a hold of your throat, you're finished."

Randy Miller has 25 years of experience training animals and his facility has had a perfect safety record, according to the site.

Randy Miller won a World Stunt Academy Award for his work wrestling tigers in the 2000 blockbuster "Gladiator" and performed stunts with his animals in films like "The Postman," "The Island of Dr. Moreau," and "The Last Samurai." He also helped recreate animal attacks for National Geographic documentaries and the Discovery Channel.

It was not immediately known how long Rocky has been at the facility.

The attack prompted actress Virginia McKenna, founder of the international wildlife charity Born Free, to call for the entertainment industry to stop using wild animals.

"The movie industry urgently needs to use its technological and creative imagination to put an end to the use of live wild animals in commercials and movies," McKenna, who starred in the 1966 wildlife film "Born Free," said in a printed release. "Hollywood is a dream factory this time the dream has become a nightmare."

Denise Richards, who works with wild animals at Moonridge Zoo, a sanctuary for injured and homeless wildlife in nearby Big Bear Lake, said trained animals that turn on their handlers are often destroyed.
 
"You can train them and use as many safety precautions as you can, but you're still taking a chance if you're putting yourself in contact with them," Richards said. "It's still a wild animal. Even though it may appear that the bear attacked for no reason, there was a reason. I'm sure Randy understands why it happened. They're not cold-blooded killers."

Native grizzly bears are extinct in California.


Comments by Steve Stringham

Dear Folks,

The Miller tragedy is regrettable. But destroying the bear would be inappropriate. Although the bear killed Miller, there is no indication that this result was intentional.

Whenever an attack occurs, it's important to separate motivation from result. Motivation can be the same whether a bear is directing bites or swats towards another bear or towards a person. But results differ dramatically between fellow bruins vs. people. For we humans are as fragile by bear standards as china dolls or hampsters are by our standards.

As best I can judge from the fact that the bear showed no sign of rage, and delivered only one bite, no clawing, this was a 3rd degree assault.

* Third degree assault: A bite or swat delivered to send a message. I have received a number of these over the years without suffering more than scratches or pinches. More intense "messages" can, however, draw blood or even require stitches. This is the most common kind of injury inflicted by wild black bears, usually when someone tries to touch them or to hand-feed them. This is analogous to a person swatting a dog for chewing on a shoe or pissing on the carpet. Message assaults seldom last more than a second or two.

* Second degree assault: A flash of temper that can draw blood from a fellow bear; seldom last more than a 1-2 seconds.

* First degree assault: An infuriated bear that keeps inflicting injury until the opponent is seriously injured or killed.

(For further details, read WHEN BEARS WHISPER, DO YOU LISTEN?)

I suspect that the bear had a flash of temper and bit Miller as it would have bit a fellow bear, which would had done no significant damage to the fellow bear, and would not have killed Miller had it not landed on his throat. The bear might have been irritated with something he did, and the bear was telling him "enough!"

These occasional flashes of temper are uncommon in the wild. Yet, anyone who spends hundreds or thousands of hours around bears, as professional viewing guides and scientists like myself do, cannot avoid seeing this happen now and then. One way to minimize risk hat we don't become the object of such messages is to stay a reasonable distance away. At sites like McNeil Falls, Hallo Bay or Geographic Harbor in Alaska, a reasonable distance can be as short as 10 yards. Closer is just too close. In areas where coastal bears are less acclimated, even 50 yards can be too close. With inland brown/grizzly bears and some inland black bears, 200-300 yards is a good minimum separation.

The issue is not whether a person can get away with being closer. After all, Treadwell got away with it for 13 summers -- until one fateful day in October 2003. Rather, the issue is how much buffer do you need in the rare even a bear gets pissed off, seeks a scapegoat, and turns on you.

After decades of studying bear behavior, I don't advise anyone to be closer than those minima; and even longer separations may be required by the National Park Service (e.g., at least 50 yards at Katmai) or other government agencies. Granted, some viewers think they are safe at even closer ranges. But those are mostly viewers without enough experience to have seen a number of close-calls. The longer you spend with bears, the more improbable events come to pass.

Steve Stringham

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