A trained grizzly bear that killed a trainer in California during a commercial video shoot last week did not attack intentionally and will not be euthanized, his owner, Randy Miller, said on Wednesday.
“The bear is a loving, affectionate animal,” Miller told TODAY’s Meredith Vieira from Los Angeles. “To this day, he doesn’t know what happened.”
Rocky, the 5-year-old bear that Miller raised from when it was a cub, was a seasoned professional and had appeared in many commercials and films. Among its credits is “Semi-Pro,” in which Rocky wrestled with Will Ferrell.
On Tuesday, April 22, Miller’s cousin, Stephan Miller, was killed while working with Rocky on a commercial shoot for his new social networking Web site, ShareNow. Stephan Miller was an experienced trainer who had worked with Rocky for years at Randy Miller’s compound, Predators in Action, high in the mountains two hours outside of Los Angeles.
The bear had a “wrestling routine” in which it grappled with a trainer or actor, who holds his arms up to protect his neck from an accidental bite. On the day, Randy Miller said, Rocky went into his routine before his trainer was ready.
“His routine, when he does the stage attack and wrestle, is to come forward and grab,” Miller said. “It can be aggressive. It can be hard. If you see the ‘Semi-Pro’ clips, he can lunge forward. He caught Stevie off guard, and Stevie’s arms were down, and the bear grabbed his neck instead of his arms.”
Just two months earlier, Stephan Miller had given an interview to a local newspaper. Talking about the dangers of working with grizzly bears, he had said, “If one of these animals gets hold of your throat, you’re finished.”
The day after the incident, Miller had told the Associated Press that the bear’s bite could have been a minor wound, but by chance it punctured the trainer’s jugular vein.
“They fell back and we knew there was a problem right away and we moved in with our safety plan that we always have in place,” Miller told Vieira. Safety measures included keeping the film crew behind an electrified fence. He was among the handlers watching the shoot and used pepper spray to get Rocky to release the victim.
“We were able to get the bear off immediately, but it was too late. The damage had been done.”
Stephan Miller initially stood up and started walking away, but he was losing blood fast. Because of the remote location of the compound, others loaded him into a car and drove him down the mountain while they called 911. On the tape of the call, a woman’s voice tinged with panic tells the operator, “He’s bleeding heavily from the neck.” When she’s asked where the injury is, she says, “His neck. His jugular.”
Those with the victim tried to stanch the flow of blood without success. Stephan Miller died from loss of blood.
There have been calls from time to time to stop using live animals in movies and instead use computer-generated animations of the type used in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” But trainers in the business say that fatal accidents are virtually unheard of.
“In my 37 years of doing this, I’ve never heard of a movie animal killing someone,” Mark Dumas, another trainer who works with bears, told NBC News.
Randy Miller remained distraught eight days later. He has yet to return to the compound and face Rocky. But he talked affectionately about the bear and the other animals he trains, including two brown bears, a black bear, a leopard, a mountain lion, four African lions and four tigers.
Of the bears, he said, “We hang out with them. They’re playful, they’re affectionate. They’re nice.”