Could this be the end of the bear show for Ohio?

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Among the attractions designed to delight visitors to county fairs in the state of Ohio is the opportunity to get into a wrestling ring with a large black bear.

For decades, a few dollars has earned the curious, the inquisitive and the downright foolhardy the opportunity to get to grips with a 650lb animal and try out their best moves. For those who don't fancy their chances of performing a half-Nelson or a corkscrew leg-drop on the bear - and remember, grapple fans, these moves should never be attempted at home - they can pay to have their picture taken with it.

But perhaps not for much longer. Far from being good clean fun, animal rights campaigners believe bear wrestling is dangerous and cruel and say it should be stopped. "It's ridiculous. I cannot believe it still exists," said Amy Rhodes, a spokeswoman for the group People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (Peta). "It has been banned in 20 states. It used to be much more common. Most people realise it is dangerous and inherently cruel."

The particular focus of Peta's latest campaign is Sam Mazzola, an Ohio-based animal exhibitor who runs the World Animal Studios touring exhibit.

Campaigners claim Mr Mazzola has a long history of breaching Department of Agriculture rules and that many of the states that have introduced restrictions on bear wrestling have done so as a result of his exhibit - which most recently performed last weekend in Cleveland. They have asked that the department revoke Mr Mazzola's licence.

But Mr Mazzola claims he has tradition and a history of good animal husbandry on his side. He says he cares for a number of bears at his headquarters in the town of Columbia Station and that the business of bear wrestling demands dedication and care from the animals trainers. He also says that, after 20 years doing what he does, he has no intention of stopping.

"To be able to bring an animal out to the public and do what we do is not easy. I mean we're talking about a bear! Do you even realise how much work, time and love we put into that? It's like nobody stops to realise that," he said. "There is nothing ever in the 23 years that I have done this that I have done to harm the animals or their health, welfare, safety or their wellbeing."

To add some spice to his exhibition, Mr Mazzola has hired a student wrestling champion to enter the ring with the bear. Lance Palmer, 19, may only weigh 140lb compared to the bear's vast bulk but he is a four-time Ohio wrestling champion - something he puts to good use when he enters the ring and comes face to face with the unmuzzled bear.

Mr Palmer, whose father works as an animal trainer for Mr Mazzola, said the bears enjoy the contest. He has been wrestling bears since he was four and says he has never been seriously injured.

"Bears are probably eight times stronger than people. If they wanted to, they could do a whole lot of damage to people. But if they are having fun, then they will play with you all day."