April 17, 2014

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Wrestling bear’s owner faces federal lawsuit

A local pet store owner is the focus of hearings this week over allegations that he’s endangered the public over the past five years by letting people wrestle a black bear named Caesar and by keeping tigers in open-topped cages.

CHRONICLE FILE
Sam Mazzola of Columbia township and Caesar in 2006, when the bear was at the IX Center in Cleveland.

An 11-page suit filed in December 2006 said Sam Mazzola of Columbia Township, who owns Animal Zone at Midway Mall, also housed and handled all kinds of exotic animals in a way that risked their safety and the safety of people who paid to see them.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, which filed the suit in Administrative Law Court in Cleveland, also has accused Mazzola of failing to file tax reports, trying to improperly transfer his exhibitor’s license, threatening and verbally abusing state inspectors, providing false business records and failing to have veterinary care for his animals.

The bear wrestling happened at the IX Center in Cleveland and Posh Nite Club in Akron, where Mazzola allegedly put up a $1,000 prize to anyone who could defeat Caesar, the suit said. He also let people have their pictures taken with the bear, according to the suit.

The court papers also said inspectors discovered two tigers being kept in open-topped cages — ones that couldn’t contain the animals — at IX Center exhibitions in March 2005, August 2005 and March 2006.

“Sam has had a number of issues over the years. He’s had at least one letter of warning issued in the past, and at this point we think his noncompliance has been egregious enough that we need to take him to court,” Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Jessica Milteer said.

Mazzola is licensed as an animal exhibitor in Ohio, but Milteer said he is in violation of the Animal Welfare Act. The suit aims to take away Mazzola’s license and could mean huge fines, too, she said. The hearings started Monday.

Whatever the outcome of the lawsuit, the Agriculture Department has no authority over pet stores, so Animal Zone would not be affected, Milteer said.

Mazzola couldn’t be reached Thursday for comment, but he told The Chronicle in 2004 that he’s a zoologist and runs an animal sanctuary in Columbia Township, where he keeps rescued lions, tigers and bears.

For a while, he kept some of those exotic animals on display at his store in the mall — including wolfdogs. At the time, Mazzola said he was in full compliance with USDA regulations even though some criticized the size of the animal enclosures.

His years-long practice of allowing people to wrestle the 600-pound bear, Caesar, also drew criticism from the activist group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, who protested Mazzola’s exhibitions in March 2006 at the IX Center.

PETA member Lucinda McConnell of North Ridgeville said at the time that in her opinion the bears were also kept in small cages, tranquilized and abused.

“It’s not something that as a civilized society we should be doing,’’ she said.

But if anything, it was Caesar’s human opponents who needed to worry, Mazzola told a reporter previously — and on that point the USDA agrees.

“All of his teeth and claws are real,’’ Mazolla said, referring to Caesar. “You get up there and kick him in his (groin), and he’ll punch a few holes in you.’’

Animal Zone’s location at Great Northern Mall in North Olmsted — which Mazzola also owns — was the subject of controversy in October 2006 when an Animal Protection League investigator seized a puppy and six kittens he said were being mistreated.

The APL inspected the pet store after a complaint from a customer who purchased a sick kitten. The investigator said he found a puppy that was underweight, dogs that appeared bloated with worms and six kittens with signs of upper respiratory infection.
Contact Jason Hawk at 329-7148 or jhawk@chroniclet.com.