Montana officials seek to revoke wildlife company's permit

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HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A Montana wildlife casting agency where an employee was fatally mauled three years ago is facing the loss of its permit because of violations that include instructing a member of the public to approach a tiger during a photo shoot in Detroit.

Fish, Wildlife and Parks spokeswoman Andrea Jones said Monday the state is moving to shut down Animals of Montana, which also rents trained bears, wolves and other captive-born wildlife for photography shoots and motion pictures.

The company took animals away from its property without the authorization of FWP at least three times this year, Jones said. Agency officials said a November inspection turned up numerous animal cages that were not padlocked, some that were too small and some that had no roof protection. An inspector also found some cages without water and some that appeared to not have been cleaned for days, the agency said.

The company's attorney, Chuck Watson, says FWP officials told him the agency would not take action against Animals of Montana's license over "these kinds of technical infractions."

"This was all set up by Fish, Wildlife and Parks so they could make a statement prior to giving us a chance to consider their allegations," Watson said Monday.

FWP said it had been tracking problems at Animals of Montana north of Bozeman since 2001, when an employee was bitten by a brown bear and suffered a broken arm.

Wildlife escapes, including African lions and a black leopard, have been reported, the state said, while other human injuries went unreported.

In November 2012, 24-year-old trainer Benjamin Cloutier of York Haven, Pennsylvania, was mauled to death by a black bear while cleaning an enclosure. The Gallatin County sheriff's office deemed Cloutier's death accidental.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed fining Animals of Montana $9,000 for unsafe working conditions and for failing to immediately report the death. The bears were not locked up while Cloutier was cleaning their enclosure, owner Troy Hyde has said.

In August, Animals of Montana took a tiger and other animals to Detroit for a photo shoot in an abandoned building. A member of the public was encouraged to use the noise of a weed whacker to try to encourage the tiger to move out of a stairwell, "putting the person in harm's way and also treating the tiger in an inhumane way," the FWP notice said.

"With the exception of the accidental death of that worker (Cloutier), nobody's ever been injured on a photo shoot," Watson said. "There was nothing to that Detroit thing. It's just another opportunity for government to run somebody into the ground who doesn't have the money to defend themselves."

Jones said the agency had tried to bring Animals of Montana into compliance for years.

"However, there has been a continued disregard for public safety and animal welfare," she said. "We have a responsibility to protect the public and make sure these animals are taken care of to proper standards. This is the last place we wanted to be, but enough is enough."

Hyde has until Jan. 27 to request a hearing on the matter or the permit will be revoked.

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