State work safety officials opened an investigation Thursday into the death of an exotic-animal trainer who was killed while wrestling a 700-pound grizzly bear for a promotional video, authorities said.
The state Department of Industrial Relations will investigate a Los Angeles company called eSeekers Inc. that employed the victim, Stephan Miller, 39, for any health and safety violations, said Kate McGuire, the agency spokeswoman.
McGuire described the business as a Web browser company that was shooting video at Predators in Action, a center in the San Bernardino Mountains that provides trained animals for movies, TV shows and documentaries.
Stephan Miller died Tuesday after the 7 1/2-foot-tall bear, named Rocky, bit him on the neck. The victim was a cousin of Predators in Action owner Randy Miller.
An autopsy Thursday found that Stephan Miller died within minutes of neck injuries consistent with a single bite, said Sandy Fatland, a spokeswoman for the San Bernardino County coroner.
"If the coroner's report says there's only one bite, then it follows what the initial report was, which is that the person was bitten, not attacked," said Harry Morse, spokesman for the state Department of Fish and Game.
The difference is that the bear wasn't necessarily being aggressive, said Joel Almquist, who co-owns an exotic animal santuary called Forever Wild and has himself wrestled Rocky.
"Knowing the bear, taking little nip-type bites with the front teeth, every bear does that," he said.
McGuire said the state probe could take as long as six months. The agency could issue citations if violations are found, she said.
A colleague of Stephan Miller said he worked for ShareNow.com, a social-networking and file-sharing startup meant to compete with sites like Facebook and YouTube. ShareNow's chairman, Nigel Robertson, said eSeekers is the holding company for Beverly Hills-based ShareNow.com.
Robertson said he hired Stephan Miller, an expert in Internet startups, 10 months ago to establish online communities and was impressed by his dedication. Miller, the No. 3 man at the fledgling company, would sleep in the office in a sleeping bag and last week tattooed ShareNow's logo on his arm, Robertson said. He talked often about his passion for exotic animals.
Robertson said he didn't know whether Stephan Miller was filming footage for ShareNow.com when he died. He said he hadn't been contacted by state officials.
"It's highly likely that if there was filming going on, and I understand there was, that it would have ended up on the site," Robertson said, adding that Miller had posted other animal clips before.
"He just loved animals and he spent as much time as he could with them. He said it's amazing, just like being with your family cat or dog," Robertson said.
Randy Miller told The Associated Press in an emotional interview late Wednesday that he couldn't explain how a "simple routine" turned tragic. Rocky, who has performed in commercials and recently appeared in the Will Ferrell movie "Semi-Pro," was trained to wrestle with experienced handlers, he said.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals provided the news media with copies of federal inspection reports that noted some problems at the site in 2001, 2005 and 2007, but a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture called them "very minor issues" that were quickly corrected.
Examples included water troughs that were frozen over, a worn and stained cutting board for meat preparation and jagged edges on some plywood enclosures.
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.
Associated Press writer Raquel Maria Dillon in Los Angeles contributed to this report.
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