From The Vault: Polar bear bit off Cincinnati Zoo keeper Laurie Stober's arm

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CINCINNATI  - When two polar bears at the Cincinnati Zoo escaped their enclosure last week,* it brought back vivid memories for Laurie Stober that she – understandably – didn't want to talk about with the media.

Laurie Stober one week after she was mauled by a polar bear in 1990.

But Stober, the victim of a polar bear attack at the zoo 26 years ago, has helped many people – young and old – deal with trauma in their lives once she discovered how to deal with it herself.

It was March 28, 1990 when the public got the shocking realization of how dangerous one of the zoo's lovable-looking 800-pound polar bears could be.

Stober, a 25-year-old zoo keeper, said she was offering a grape to a caged polar bear when it pushed its teeth through the bars and grabbed her fingers. The bear chewed up her right arm almost to the elbow before biting it off and freeing her.

She might have bled to death if fellow staffers had not applied a tourniquet, said the doctor who performed reconstructive surgery on her.  

Laurie Stober in recent photo.

It was the most serious attack by an animal on a person in zoo history, and it eventually led to a lawsuit, a trial and allegations that the zoo ignored danger warnings from Stober and other staff.

After the accident, Zoo Executive Director Ed Maruska said Stober was aware of the dangers. He said she had been recommended for the job of head polar bear keeper.

"The bear was behaving as a bear would. They're carnivores. They're aggressive and unpredictable," he said.

"She knew the potential, and she was just a little too close."

Yet, there was no formal training for bear keeping, Maruska said.

"It's on-the-job training," Maruska said. "In large part, it's common sense."

Maruska said Stober was his daughter's best friend and classmate and he got her the job at the zoo five years previous. Later, when he retired, Maruska said the attack on Stober was the hardest thing he ever went through. "She was like a daughter to me," he said.

Stober was remarkably upbeat after losing her arm, said her surgeon, Dr. Lawrence Kurtzman. He said he asked Stober if she was allergic to anything.

"She said, 'Yeah, polar bears,'" Kurtzman said.

A week after the attack, a smiling Stober walked into a news conference, said "Howdy" as she sat down, and proceeded to thank the public for its good wishes. She showed no bitterness and spoke optimistically about her future.

Stober quoted from the Peace Prayer of St. Francis of Assisi, saying, "'Where there is despair, hope; where there is darkness, light; where there is sadness, joy' … I haven't really had any time to have darkness or sadness or despair. Everything has been very joyful, hopeful, and to the people of Cincinnati, just know how much I appreciate it."

But her adjustment to life without a right arm was harder than she expected. She and her husband dissolved their marriage 11 months after the attack, and the lawsuit and trial four years later took an emotional toll on her, one of her attorneys said. The zoo disputed Stober's account of what happened. She had denied putting her hand in the cage. The zoo, in effect, called her a liar.

Stober won a $3.5 million judgment from a jury on Nov. 30, 1994, but the zoo vowed to appeal.

"There's no way the bear could get his mouth or teeth or muzzle through those bars. No way. And we will be able to bring that out on appeal," a zoo spokesperson said after the verdict. "We tested it. We tried everything possible to test it, and there's just no way."

Four months later, in March, 1995, the two sides settled for an undisclosed amount.

After her own trial, Stober testified in a fired co-worker's lawsuit that the zoo ignored danger warnings from staff. The co-worker, who claimed she was fired for reporting those unsafe working conditions, won her wrongful termination case.

Then 30, Stober was raising a son and attending the College of Mount St. Joseph to become a teacher, majoring in psychology and education. Almost a decade later, she told an interviewer, Frances Griggs Sloat,  that she had a spiritual awakening and decided to go to Xavier to earn master's degrees in theology and social sciences.

"I did my thesis on the idea that we can cope with life, but to transcend trauma there has to be a sense of one's spirit or spirituality," she said.

At 39, Stober graduated in 2003 and eventually earned a license as a professional clinical counselor.  She started a business called Full Circle Therapy to give therapy to troubled foster children. She told another interviewer, Deborah Kendrick, that she wanted to build self-esteem and confidence for kids who had been abused, neglected or marginalized due to disability. Ever an animal lover, she brought the kids to her farm, where she kept six horses, and used the horses to engage them.

Stober blended her own spirituality and psychology in her therapy, she said.

"I don't want to be just a therapist or just an animal person,"  Stober said. "I want to combine everything I have here in my own brand of therapy to put kids who have never been out of  the city in touch with nature, and kids who have never had power over their own lives the experience of bonding with a horse."

Today, Stober still provides therapy on her farm and also works out of an office in Blue Ash, according to her website.  She specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder, personality disorders and family conflict, according to her bio at PsychologyToday.com.

The name of her company, Full Circle Therapy, represents her own journey as well as those she helps.

* There was no danger to staff or visitors when two polar bears breached their containment  on March 16, the zoo said. The polar bears weren't running wild around the zoo. They had walked through an open den door but were still contained in a service hallway. The zoo said its staff followed its security training and the polar bears were returned safely to their primary holding area.

RELATED: Zoo security: Visitors not at risk from polar bears
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