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Veterinarian Wins Round in Battle Over Cub

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A Superior Court judge Tuesday barred state wildlife officials from seizing an abandoned black bear cub from a Big Bear Lake veterinarian, ruling that the animal, named Coconino, should remain with her caretaker until a lawsuit over the matter can be heard next month.

Judge Rufus Yent, in granting the injunction sought by veterinarian Kent Walker, said questions remain about whether Coconino--an animal raised since birth by humans--can be defined as a “wild” creature and thus subject to control by the California Department of Fish and Game.

Such questions, the judge said, “have never before been litigated in California” and must be resolved at trial, which he set for June 4.

“We’re thrilled,” Diana Carloni, an attorney representing Walker, said of the preliminary victory. “The judge basically bought our argument, and we certainly feel this is in the best interest of Coconino.”

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Officials with the state Department of Fish and Game, meanwhile, expressed disappointment but pledged to continue their fight to return Coconino to the forest.

“We are still optimistic that the bear has a chance to grow up and live in the woods,” said Paul Jensen, the department’s deputy director. “But our experts tell us that the longer the cub remains in close proximity to humans, the more you reduce your odds of having a successful reintroduction (to the wild).”

Yent’s ruling marks the latest twist in an unusual tug-of-war between Walker and Fish and Game officials. The case essentially is a clash of opinions on the proper handling of wild animals adopted by humans at birth.

The cub was found Jan. 30 by hikers in a snowy valley north of Big Bear Lake, a village in the San Bernardino Mountains. Apparently abandoned by its mother, the newborn weighed just seven ounces.

The hikers turned the tiny bear over to Walker, who took it into his home and began feeding it a special milk formula from a baby bottle.

After consulting several experts, Walker decided Coco had become too accustomed to humans to survive release into the wild. Instead, Walker began planning to raise Coco in a fenced enclosure, where, he reasoned, she could serve as an educational resource for children and visitors to the mountains.

The community responded enthusiastically. A Coconino Trust Fund was launched, and the sale of “Save Coconino” T-shirts, bumper stickers and buttons has pumped more than $7,000 into the account.

But the state Department of Fish and Game--which has legal authority over California’s wildlife--had a different reaction. The department contends that bears, as wild animals, should live in the wild, and wants to send Coco to a “rehabilitation” center to prepare her for a return to the forest.

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Walker, however, is convinced the rehabilitation process would fail and that Coco--regarding all humans as friends because of her happy experience as an infant--would merely become an easy target for poachers.

In his lawsuit, Walker contends that he may assert ownership over Coconino because she has become “tamed” through the three months she has spent in his living room.

Fish and Game attorneys say a victory for Walker would set a dangerous precedent, allowing others to seize wild animals, hold on to them long enough to describe them as tame and claim ownership.


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