COLUMBIA STATION, Ohio — A bear attacked and killed its caretaker at the home of a man who kept a menagerie of dangerous, exotic beasts and ran afoul of animal regulators a few years ago by staging wrestling matches between bears and humans.
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 His license to show animals had been revoked, but he still kept dozens of bears, wolves, tigers, lions and perhaps coyotes. The state said Mazzola had no violations for owning animals under Ohio regulations.
The bear was out of its cage for its feeding Thursday evening by 24-year-old Brent Kandra, "which was normal for this particular bear because the caretaker and the owner had been around it so much," Lorain County Sheriff's Capt. James 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.
Kandra, of Elyria, died Friday morning at MetroHealth Medical Center, the coroner's office in Cleveland said. The coroner said the tentative cause of death was "sharp and blunt injuries to the body consistent with a bear attack."
A rescue squad took Mazzola to a hospital Thursday night with an unspecified medical problem that Drozdowski said was not from any injury.
In brief comments to reporters outside his compound, Mazzola said he was the only witness to Thursday night's attack. He declined to describe the attack but said the bear was the victim's favorite.
"It's one that he played with constantly, every time that he was here," Mazzola said.
Whether the bear will be euthanized will be up to the victim's family, Mazzola said. "I want them to know that Brent loved the bear very much and I'm sure the bear loved him very much," he said.
Mazzola showed off a facial scar he got from an encounter with a bear and said he had gotten 2,000 stitches from injuries suffered while working with animals.
"These are the things that happen when you deal and love these type of animals," he said.
Mazzola, who had filed for bankruptcy this year and had convictions for illegally selling and transporting animals, returned to his home around noon Friday. Authorities will investigate before deciding on any criminal charges.
Kandra was an experienced worker who helped Mazzola maintain the compound in Columbia Township, the owner's attorney, John Frenden, said Friday.
The property held about seven to nine bears and 20 wolves, and possibly a lion and three or four tigers, Drozdowski said. Neighbors said he also kept coyotes.
Mazzola said in his 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.
Tom Burrington, 68, a retiree who lives two doors down, says he's fed up with noise from the animals and the risk to the neighborhood.
"It's a pain in the neck. There are coyotes hollering at night, lion roaring at night, junkyard dogs barking all day," Burrington said as neighbors gathered across the street.
"It's gotten worse the past few years. It's gotten noisier. He didn't have the wolves and the coyotes before. You can't sleep with the window open."
Raymond O'Leary, a retired Cleveland police officer who lives in the development, said it was like living "next to the zoo."
"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."
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.
Andrea McNally, a USDA spokeswoman, confirmed Friday that the agency revoked Mazzola's license to exhibit animals — but she noted that the agency does not regulate private ownership of exotic animals.
Ohio requires permits for anyone owning bears in the state, and Mazzola has had such permits for 20 years, including one for nine bears for 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Ohio does not regulate the ownership of non-native animals, including lions or tigers.
Mazzola 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. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service.
A neighbor and friend of Mazzola, Michael Strickland, 48, said that he has helped Mazzola feed the animals through the fence and that his teenage nephew wrestled a bear on the grounds nine years ago. Strickland praised Mazzola's work with animals and his affection for them.
"He treats the animals as if they were his children," he said. "He takes excellent care of the animals."
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.