Perched atop a bench on the city of Glendale's float for the 2014 Rose Parade, Christine Ecker, 12, was spending a recent Saturday morning concentrating on snipping the petals off of yellow straw flowers and into a cardboard tray on her lap. The colorful clippings would eventually be pulverized and painted onto the float as an organic coating of color.
Looming above her, a 16-foot-tall bear poked its head out of a garbage can. The enormous, animatronic creature was a floral rendering of Meatball, the infamous California black bear that made the news several times after repeatedly invading foothill neighborhoods around Glendale, looking for food.
Though many Southern Californians followed the bear's escapades last year, Ecker had more reason than most to be familiar with him.
"I like that they have the bear in the trashcan — Meatball — because he was on my street,” Ecker said.
She said she had to stay in her house during the time he was roaming her neighborhood, and though she'd been a little frightened at the time, she welcomed the idea of putting him on a float.
“I thought it was pretty cool," Ecker said. "I like that idea.”
Many people feel the same way. Glendale is celebrating Meatball by making him the centerpiece in its parade float, titled "Let's Be Neighbors." The float includes several animal species known to exist in the area and is a testament to the urban-wildlife interface, which is increasing as more people move into previously undeveloped areas.
"It’s supposed to be about our environment that we have in [the Foothill communities]," said Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver. "All of these animals, you’ll find living in the hills, and you’ll interface with them on a daily basis. Thus the float.”
Weaver, who has been a float crew chief for 21 years, said that including Meatball in the design has brought a lot of publicity to the project.
“I have 230 [volunteers] signed up for today – the most I’ve ever had," Weaver said. "We have people from all over that are coming for the Glendale float.”
A troublesome bear
In 2011, Meatball spent several months raiding garbage cans near the foothills of the San Gabriel Mountains. In 2012, he moved south of the 210 freeway and had to be chased off several times by local police. The bear gained his nickname after an incident in which a homeowner discovered the bear in his garage, eating a package of rotting meatballs.
After two unsuccessful attempts at tranquilizing and relocating the bear to other parts of the Angeles National Forest, rangers for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife captured the bear in August 2012 and moved him to a wild animal sanctuary near San Diego.
Meatball has become the embodiment of the intricacies of coexisting with Southern California's wild lands. Hundreds, if not thousands, of black bears roam the mountains of Southern California. Their numbers have been rising over the years, largely because of the availability of food in the form of human garbage. State officials said that many people aren't familiar with the extra precautions that are needed when living so close to wild lands.
“They live there, because they want to be closer to the wilderness, and they like being up out of the haze a little bit, but with that comes an inherent responsibility," said Andrew Hughan, a spokesperson for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. "If you care about wildlife, then it’s your responsibility to police up your trash and to keep your trashcans clean and to keep your avocados off the ground, because that’s what’s bringing the bears in."
A unique solution
Meatball's escapades began making the news, and a following sprang up around him. That following especially grew after a Glendale resident began a Twitter account for the bear, @TheGlendaleBear.
“The authorities were talking about shooting it, and I didn’t want him to die," said Sarah Aujero, who still tweets using the handle @TheGlendaleBear.
The account soon gained nearly 30,000 followers.
"Followers just started being added and kept being added," Aujero said. "It was insane for me, because I never had a Twitter account that popular before."
That popularity increased pressure on officials to find a non-lethal solution for the bear. Eventually, he was accepted as a permanent resident at Lions, Tigers & Bears, a wildlife sanctuary in Alpine, California.
Despite fears that Meatball's overfamiliarity with humans would lead to him being euthanized, officials for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife said he was never at risk of being put down because he hadn't caused much damage or threatened anyone.
"The decision to put an animal down is based on either the animal's behavior or the animal's health, and there was nothing wrong with this bear's health or behavior," said Marty Wahl, a patrol lieutenant with the department who was present at each of the three captures of Meatball.
Officials for the Department of Fish and Wildlife said that several years have passed since a bear was last euthanized, but Hughan said it's unlikely that future nuisance bears will receive as happy an ending as Meatball.
"Unfortunately, those circumstances are probably not going to exist again, where everything will fall in line. And it is probably going to come a point where we’re going to have to make that choice to either destroy a bear as a public safety, if it gets into someone’s house, or someone will ask for a depredation permit," said Hughan.
As for Meatball, he's spending the rest of his days at a sanctuary, where animal lovers can schedule visits to come see him. The sanctuary is currently raising funds to develop a six-acre habitat for him and the five other bears with whom he resides.
“The sad thing is after the media goes away, everybody forgets about him. And most of those animals are sitting at sanctuaries," said Bobbi Brinks, the founder and director of Lions, Tigers & Bears. "It’ll be interesting to see after the Rose Bowl Parade, who remembers Meatball.”