The owner of a wild animal training center where a grizzly bear killed a handler says the animal is a “loving, affectionate, friendly, safe bear,” but he is at a loss to explain how a “simple routine” turned tragic.
In an emotional phone interview with The Associated Press late Wednesday, Randy Miller said he was overwhelmed with grief at the death of his cousin, Stephan Miller, who was killed Tuesday during the filming of a promotional video at Randy Miller’s Predators in Action center.
“It’s ... killing me. We were brothers,” Randy Miller said, close to tears.
Miller, who witnessed the attack, would not talk in detail about what happened, but said the bear, a 5-year-old male named Rocky, was trained to wrestle with experienced handlers.
“It’s a playful behavior brought out on cue,” he said.
But when Rocky suddenly bit his cousin in the neck, “it hit him in a very vulnerable spot. If it had hit his arm or something it would have been bad,” but wouldn’t have cost him his life, Miller said.
“It happened so fast,” he said. “We did what we had to do to stop the bear. It took a matter of seconds to get him off, but it was too late.”
Handlers used pepper spray to subdue the bear. Paramedics arriving shortly after the initial emergency call were unable to revive Stephan Miller. An autopsy was under way Thursday.
“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.
“We gotcha; holding on to you, man,” a male voice said before it was clear Stephan Miller was no longer breathing.
Matt Wilson, 18, a neighbor who lives up a dirt road from the animal center, said Randy Miller went to Wilson’s family’s house after the attack for comfort. Miller told Wilson’s family his staff had been filming an advertisement when the bear attacked.
“They were filming it and the bear started licking (Stephan Miller’s) face and then all of a sudden it just bit him,” Wilson said. “He was just really upset and didn’t know why it happened.”
Randy Miller said he doesn’t know what will happen to Rocky, who has performed in commercials and recently appeared in the Will Ferrell movie “Semi-Pro.” In the meantime, the 700-pound, 7½-foot-tall bear remains in his cage.
The state Department of Fish and Game investigated the attack but will not decide whether the bear will be euthanized because the attack occurred outside its jurisdiction on a private site, department spokesman Harry Morse said.
State occupational safety officials are trying to determine if they have jurisdiction, said Kate McGuire, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Industrial Relations.
The center had its permits and was up to code, said San Bernardino Sheriff’s spokeswoman Jodi Miller, who is not related to Randy or Stephan Miller.
In its past four inspections, officials with the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service found no non-compliances, said the spokeswoman, Jessica Milteer.
The facility also houses two brown bears and a black bear, along with various snakes and reptiles, an alligator, crocodile, leopard, mountain lion, four African lions and four tigers.
Randy Miller built his Hollywood career by training wild animals to perform on cue and safely recreate legendary animal attacks for Discovery Channel and National Geographic documentary producers, including the tiger mauling of illusionist Roy Horn during a Siegfried & Roy show in Las Vegas.
“I’m not blaming the animal,” Miller said of Rocky. “We’re fast and efficient if there’s a problem. These kinds of scenes I do — we’re putting ourselves in a vulnerable position a lot.”
Hollywood filmmaker Nick Palumbo said he sometimes visited Stephan and Randy Miller while they worked with the grizzly.
“Stephan was my best friend. Anybody who killed him I would want to kill, but I don’t believe the bear meant to hurt him,” said Palumbo, adding that he was torn about what should happen to Rocky.
“Stephan loved the bear. He and his cousin raised it,” Palumbo said.
He said his friend left behind a wife and two children.
Colleagues describe Randy Miller as a top-class trainer dedicated to safety and the care of his animals. Stephan Miller was also an experienced trainer, said Chemaine Almquist, founder of an exotic animal center in Phelan called Forever Wild and a friend of the Millers.
“He’s always on the ball, making sure everything is extra safe,” she said of Randy Miller. “He’s always the one who says, ‘You’ve got to do this, check the locks twice, you gotta wear pepper spray.’ When I first found out, I was ready to throw up.”
The remote Predators in Action campus is tucked off a private, dirt road high in the snow-capped San Bernardino Mountains, a two-hour drive from Los Angeles. Its only neighbors are a few vacation cabins and a campground.