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Trainers want bear spared

Times Staff Writer

Friends and colleagues of an animal trainer killed by a performing bear called it a “freak accident” Wednesday and said the 700-pound grizzly should not be euthanized. The animal, they said, did not intend to kill the bear expert.

“The same thing he was doing I have done a hundred times. We wrestle the bears in a loving way,” said Joel Almquist, an animal trainer who has worked extensively with Rocky, the 5-year-old grizzly who killed 39-year-old Stephan Miller on Tuesday with a single bite to the neck.

“This bear has never shown aggression,” Almquist said. “It was a flash bite, a real quick . . . bam. Unfortunately, we are built like tissue paper compared to them.”

At the same time Wednesday, animal rights advocates said the bear’s owner had a history of neglecting his cast of exotic movie animals. They have called for the bear’s retirement from showbiz.

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Miller, a Canyon Country resident and father of two, was working with Rocky on a video shoot when the bear suddenly lunged. Two other trainers subdued the 7 1/2 -foot grizzly with pepper spray.

Miller was working for his cousin, Randy Miller, who owns Predators in Action. The company trains animals for television and films at a remote compound near Big Bear Lake. Rocky was recently featured in the Will Ferrell film “Semi-Pro.”

A 911 recording documented desperate efforts to save Stephan Miller before paramedics arrived, according to the Associated Press.

“He’s bleeding heavily from his neck. . . . We need someone here immediately,” a woman told the operator, who directed emergency procedures while determining that the bear was contained.

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“We gotcha, holding on to you, man,” a male voice said before it was clear Miller was no longer breathing.

The recording ended with the woman counting chest compressions and the breathing cycle of cardiopulmonary resuscitation.

At least one animal rights group was quick to criticize the company Wednesday.

“These are wild animals, and it doesn’t surprise us one bit when one of them lashes out. It’s not uncommon,” said Lisa Wathne, a spokeswoman for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “We are asking that Mr. Miller retire this animal from show business and put him in a sanctuary.”

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PETA released inspection reports from the U.S. Department of Agriculture citing Randy Miller for keeping animals in small enclosures without roofs, keeping them in pens with ripped plywood and improperly storing food. One report dated January 2007 said there was 4 to 5 inches of snow inside a lion’s cage which the animal could not get away from. A USDA spokesman could not be reached for comment.

PETA also provided ads placed by Miller in the publication Animal Finders’ Guide in 2005: “Free! Looking for good home for cougar, black leopard, black bear, two white tigers and Siberian tiger.”

Wathne said the ad demonstrated a lack of concern by Miller for animals deemed no longer useful to him.

Miller did not respond to requests for comment, but Almquist, a longtime friend, said the USDA infractions were minor and did not reflect a pattern of neglect. The animals being given away no longer worked, he said, and were eventually placed in a wildlife sanctuary outside Los Angeles.

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“Zoos get hundreds of write-ups each year. Sometimes they deserve it; sometimes they don’t,” said Almquist, who runs Forever Wild Exotic Animal Sanctuary in Phelan, near Victorville.

Stephan Miller had worked at least 20 years with Randy Miller, he said.

“He was a great guy who loved his wife and kids,” Almquist said. “He raised half the animals up there. We all take an inherent risk when we train animals, and we can’t forget that these are wild animals.”

Officials from San Bernardino County’s office of preventive veterinary services inspected the facility Wednesday to make sure there was no risk of escape. The state Department of Fish and Game also sent investigators to the site.

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If Rocky survives, the odds of his working again in movies are slim.

“This does not sound like an aggressive attack. It sounds like it happened in the course of playing,” said Karen Rosa, director of the American Humane Assn.'s film and television unit, which oversees the care of animals on movie and television sets. “But we would probably not be comfortable working with Rocky on the set. It would be a liability issue.”

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david.kelly@latimes.com

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The Associated Press contributed to this report.


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