COLUMBIA STATION, Ohio - The roars and howls emanating from the property of a man who kept a menagerie of wolves, tigers and bears had many of his neighbors fed up even before one of the bears attacked and killed its 24-year-old caretaker.
"It's a pain in the neck," said Tom Burrington, 68, a retiree who lives two doors down. "There are coyotes hollering at night, lions roaring at night, junkyard dogs barking all day."
A bear attacked caretaker Brent Kandra on Thursday evening after being taken out of its cage for a routine feeding, Lorain County Sheriff's Capt. James Drozdowski said. Owner Sam Mazzola, who years ago earned the wrath of animal rights activists for letting people wrestle one of his bears, used a fire extinguisher to force the beast back into its cage.
"We don't know whether something startled the bear or what prompted the bear to get aggressive with the caretaker," Drozdowski said.
Kandra, of Elyria, died Friday morning at MetroHealth Medical Center of injuries consistent with a bear attack, a coroner said. It didn't appear that the bear in the attack had even been used in wrestling, officials said.
In comments to reporters outside his compound, Mazzola said he was the only witness to the attack. He declined to describe what happened, but said the bear was the victim's favorite.
"It's one that he played with constantly, every time that he was here," Mazzola said.
Whether the bear will be euthanized will be up to the victim's family, Mazzola said.
"I want them to know that Brent loved the bear very much and I'm sure the bear loved him very much," he said.
Mazzola showed off a facial scar he got from a bear encounter and said he had gotten 2,000 stitches from injuries suffered while working with animals.
"These are the things that happen when you deal and love these type of animals," he said.
Kandra was an experienced worker who helped Mazzola maintain the compound in Columbia Township, the owner's attorney, John Frenden, said Friday.
Mazzola had filed for bankruptcy this year and had convictions for illegally selling and transporting animals. Authorities will investigate before deciding on any criminal charges.
The property held about seven to nine bears and 20 wolves, and possibly a lion and three or four tigers, Drozdowski said. Neighbors said he also kept coyotes. Mazzola said in his bankruptcy filing in May in federal court in Cleveland that he owned two white tigers, two Bengal tigers, an African lion, eight bears and 12 wolves.
The filing also listed "Ceasar the Wrestling Bear" as a Mazzola trademark.
For more than 20 years, Mazzola took money from people to wrestle a bear or have a picture taken in a cage with his other bears or a tiger.
People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals demanded in 2006 that the U.S. Department of Agriculture take away Mazzola's license to exhibit exotic animals.
Mazzola's response at the time was: "To be able to bring an animal out into the public and do what we do is not easy. I mean we're talking about a bear! Do you even realize how much work, time and love we put into that? It's like nobody stops to realize that."
The USDA did revoke Mazzola's license to exhibit animals, spokeswoman Andrea McNally said, but noted that the agency does not regulate private ownership of exotic animals.
Ohio requires permits for anyone owning bears in the state, and Mazzola has had such permits for 20 years, including one for nine bears for 2010, according to the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. Ohio does not regulate the ownership of non-native animals, including lions or tigers.
Mazzola's street divides Cleveland's outer suburbs from rural Lorain County, with an upscale development on the suburban side and older, widely separated homes on the other. His gate was closed Friday with a no-trespassing sign posted, and sheriff's deputies were posted nearby.
Neighbors said they were fed up with noise and the risk to the neighborhood.
"It's gotten worse the past few years. It's gotten noisier. He didn't have the wolves and the coyotes before. You can't sleep with the window open," Burrington said.
Raymond O'Leary, a retired Cleveland police officer who lives in the development, said it was like living "next to the zoo."
"It's a concern to all of us," said O'Leary, 76. "We can hear the animals in the evening, at feeding time, roaring over there."
Mazzola pleaded guilty in September 2009 in federal court to transporting a black bear to Toledo without a license, records show. He also pleaded guilty to selling a skunk without a license at a pet store he operated and trying to sell another skunk. He was sentenced to three years' probation and ordered to perform 250 hours of community service.
A neighbor and friend of Mazzola's, Michael Strickland, 48, praised his work with animals.
"He treats the animals as if they were his children," he said. "He takes excellent care of the animals."
Bear attacks in the wild have already killed at least two people this year.
Federal wildlife officials in June tracked down and killed a grizzly bear suspected of fatally mauling a man in Wyoming. A grizzly bear mauled three campers in Montana in late July, leaving one man dead and two people with serious injuries.