The community is invited to find out why its favorite bear loved meatballs while providing financial support for his habitat and the building of a parade float.
By Mary O’KEEFE
Crescenta Valley has had its share of wildlife visits from mountain lions to a bear with burned paws after the Station Fire, but perhaps none has been as enduring as Meatball, our CV-loving bear.
Residents in the foothills are used to wandering wildlife; it is a reason some moved to this area. Many neighborhoods in Glendale are nestled near mountainous areas. Residents can enjoy a dynamic mix of nature and city, which is why Glendale City Council decided the theme for the Glendale Rose Parade float “Let’s Be Neighbors” would highlight the wildlife that share local neighborhoods.
On Saturday, a fundraiser will be held at Deukmejian Wilderness Park from which proceeds will go to the City of Glendale’s float committee and Lions, Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary. Community members, Crescenta Valley Weekly, Prom Plus, Lions, Tigers & Bears and the city of Glendale have worked together on this event that will include a meatball tasting competition with meatballs provided by local restaurants. There will be entertainment and booths providing wildlife information. The event begins at noon and runs until 4 p.m. Tickets are $20.
Without a doubt, one of the favorite “neighbors” of Crescenta Valley in recent years has been Meatball. In April 2012, reports were being made of a bear wandering the far north Glendale and La Crescenta areas. Reports of bears are not uncommon in the area; however, this bear was roaming far away from the Angeles National Forest. There was a photo of a large bear, about 300 pounds, strolling in front of J’s Maintenance early one morning. Police and sheriffs were called but the bear eluded them.
Then came a report that a large bear had eaten meatballs from a freezer in a garage in Glenwood Oaks. The number of sightings increased. Glendale police was proactive in its attempts to catch the bear, which seemed to like to stay in the Glenwood Oaks, Whiting Woods and Mountain Oaks areas. Residents were not overly concerned. They kept their pets inside and followed the advice from law enforcement and the Dept. of Fish and Game to keep garbage secured. But the bear stuck around.
One resident placed flour on her patio at night and the next morning found large paw prints in it. By this time the bear, which CV residents referred to as Meatball, had become a media darling and even had its own Twitter account started by a resident in the Chevy Chase area of Glendale.
Then on the morning of April 10, 2012 he went strolling down Mayfield Avenue. With several residents looking on, along with helicopters from news media, law enforcement and the California Dept. of Fish and Game were able to tranquilize him. It took a few darts, but he finally came to rest after jumping a fence at an apartment complex in the 2500 block of Montrose Avenue.
The meatball-loving bear was tagged with 210 – a random but poignant sign – and he was taken back to the Angeles National Forest. And that was that – or so most thought.
In June, Meatball made his way back to Crescenta Valley, took a swim in a local family’s pool, ate some avocados and once again began to roam the streets. This time he was captured as he traveled down one of the debris basins. He passed Clark Magnet High School, climbed a tree on Fredrick Avenue and was tranquilized again.
He went back to the forest but could not stay away from where he considered his home. This time he was in the backyard of a home on Ocean View Boulevard, way above Foothill Boulevard. A trap was set; he fell for the McDonald’s Happy Meal lure presented by Fish and Game.
At this point, Fish and Game knew they had to do something else for Meatball. He had put down roots in Crescenta Valley and here he was going to stay.
“[Fish and Game] had spoken with me many times before the [third appearance] of the bear,” said Bobbi Brink, founder and director of Lions, Tigers & Bears, an exotic animal sanctuary near San Diego.
At the time, Brink told Fish and Game that she couldn’t take the bear, not as a resident of her sanctuary.
“Then they asked me if I could hold him until he was transported,” she said.
That was something she could do but like every dealing with Meatball, what was planned was not exactly what happened.
“We had started to formulate a plan, to look at our options,” said Andrew Hughan, spokesman for Fish and Game. “The options unfortunately are limited for black bears.”
Meatball was to go to a sanctuary in Colorado, but that did not work out due to regulations by the state.
“The hero in this whole story, every bit of it, belongs to Bobbi Brink,” he said. “It is impossible to say what would have happened without her.”
Hughan had been dealing with the bear sightings since April.
He had been around the neighborhood for some time,” Hughan said. “There had been sightings of him back into the woods.”
The fact that Meatball came back the first time surprised Hughan.
“It is uncommon, but bears easily have the roaming capability,” he said. “They can travel 100 miles or more.”
Fish and Game officers never did find out what scent trail the bear was following when he originally came down below Foothill Boulevard.
“He got himself into situations rarely seen before,” Hughan added.
All of this, although cute, was also dangerous for Meatball. He became less of a “real” bear and more of a Teddy Bear. It was important that residents remembered that, despite his “smarter than the average bear” actions, he was still a wild animal.
That was in part what Sarah Aujero was concerned about when it came to the bear she had been tweeting about.
“I started the account as a joke,” she said.
Aujero set up a Twitter account for Meatball as a fun way to keep track of the bear, but then the account quickly grew in popularity. Other bloggers began picking up on it and suddenly Aujero became a bear expert, of sorts.
“It was weird,” she said of the sudden popularity.
The day Meatball was caught she was at work, without a television, and was unable to follow what was going on. That didn’t stop people from contacting her to ask her what was going on.
As the media attention became more focused on the bear, and his Twitter account became more popular, Aujero was concerned for Meatball’s safety.
“There were more people trying to take photos of him or to chase him,” she said. She was concerned that the humans might approach the bear in unsafe ways.
This was and is still a concern for Brink who agreed not only to take Meatball as a permanent resident at Lions, Tigers & Bears, but has been fundraising to build a bigger habitat to house him.
The attention Meatball has garnered is a dual-edged sword – it brings a focus to the plight of exotic animals, whether purchased or those that no longer live in the wild. But it also raises the visibility of how these animals that can no longer live in the wild must be taken care of.
When Meatball was first brought to LTB he lived in a small caged area while quarantined. Some did not understand that this was a necessary process, Brink said.
“We have a strict quarantine procedure of 30 days,” she said.
Under normal circumstances, Brink and her staff will process an animal they are to transport and house at the location the animal was found. They take blood and other tests to make certain the animals are healthy.
“We don’t want to bring an [animal] in that might make our healthy animals sick,” she said.
In Meatball’s case, the tests were done at the sanctuary. Another reason to keep an animal in quarantine is to help him/her get used to their caregivers and their surroundings.
“Meatball, at first, was standing on his back legs and going after us at the fence,” she said. But soon he found that this new home had fresh water and food, so although it was not Crescenta Valley, it was acceptable.
“He is so funny,” Brink said of Meatball.
He now lives in a four-acre habitat with a total of six bears.
“Ideally we would like to have [only] four,” Brink said.
Meatball has bonded with the other bears, which include two female bears, Blossom and Delilah.
“The girls are the boss,” she said.
A life of rescuing animals was not something Brink had always planned on, though she always loved animals.
“From day one, you can ask my mom, [animals] would follow me home,” she said.
She began her animal sanctuary journey over 20 years ago when she was in Texas looking for a restaurant and saw ads for lions, tigers and cougars for sale.
“Living in Texas, you really see the [exotic animal] trade,” she said. “I have seen tigers for sale in a [department store’s] parking lot.”
She knew these animals needed protecting and that when zoos closed down or people who bought wild animals discovered they were really wild or, like in the case of Meatball, encroachment forced animals to find another place, someone needed to step up and take care of them.
Brink said she hopes the attention raised by Meatball will help educate people on how to live with wildlife, not just bears but all wildlife.
The new sanctuary is $40,000 away from its goal, but constructing the habitat does not include upkeep.
“It is the upkeep that is the expensive part,” she said. “It takes [about] $10,000 a year for each bear and tiger.”
Meatball is 7 years old and will probably live for another 20 years, and that is just one bear.
Rehabilitation is another interest Brink has for the future. She said if bears are caught young, some could be rehabilitated and put back into the wild. But all of this takes support.
It is the city of Glendale’s hope that having the spotlight on Meatball and the city’s float as it rolls down Colorado Boulevard will bring awareness to the fact that many of us, not just those living in California, share the Earth with wildlife and can offer help.