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Samson, O.C. Zoo’s Star, Heads for That Hot Tub in the Sky

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A lesser bear might have gone quietly.

Not Samson. Even in death, the 500-pound American black bear who gained celebrity status when he was seen lounging in a Monrovia hot tub in 1994 continued to attract attention Tuesday.

The zookeeper at the Orange County Zoo, where Samson spent his final years, fought back tears. Orange County supervisors adjourned their meeting in memory of the 27-year-old bear. And zoo director Forrest de Spain talked about building a monument, possibly a life-size bronze statue of Samson, “so he can live on.”

Samson suffered from a form of Alzheimer’s disease, eye problems and kidney failure. Essentially, his keepers said, the bear was a victim of old age and was euthanized Monday. Black bears typically live about 20 years in captivity, so Samson lived a long life, zoo officials said.

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In recent months, zoo officials said, Samson had not been his usual buoyant self. He’d been hiding, staying away from the grapes and avocados he enjoyed so much and hadn’t cooled off in his private pool in his $187,000 habitat. If he’d lived much longer, he would have been in excruciating pain, officials said.

“It’s devastating for a lot of reasons,” said Marcy Crede, education coordinator for the zoo. “He really became . . . part of us all.”

At his prime, Samson was an immense and proud specimen, and a bit of a legend as well.

Gary Potter, the Monrovia man who videotaped Samson lounging in his hot tub during the predawn hours, said he saw the bear as a symbol of what happens when urban life meets wild life and how the two can coexist.

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“I fix cars for a living and deal with machines,” Potter said. “Samson changed me. Makes you think different. Bears come to our pool all the time now and destroy everything. I don’t mind. The animals are a part of me now.”

From Death Sentence to Celebrity Status

Officials at the zoo said Samson’s celebrity was remarkable for the zoo. He would amble around his habitat, sit upright and seemingly lose himself in deep thought. The bear even inadvertently planted two avocado trees for himself when he stepped on seeds, driving them into the ground, and they sprouted. Officials said Samson attracted thousands of visitors, drawing people who normally wouldn’t have visited the zoo.

“Without him, the zoo wouldn’t be anywhere near what it is now,” said Orange County Parks Supt. Tim Miller. “He put us on the map.”

Zoo officials say they routinely receive letters and faxes from all over the world asking about Samson. Zookeepers recently installed a camera near his habitat so the bear’s fans could keep tabs on him on the Internet.

De Spain, who said he feels as if he lost a best friend, said the decision to end the bear’s life was the hardest thing he’s had to do in his 20-year career.

“I became extremely emotionally involved with Samson, watching him, learning from him,” de Spain said. “He educated a lot of people. . . . just to see a wild bear is very significant.”

The zoo director helped save Samson six years ago by offering the bear a home. During his hot tub frolicking days, the bear had been deemed a nuisance and was to be euthanized until Gov. Pete Wilson responded to a public outcry and lifted Samson’s death sentence.

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“He’s been our celebrity ever since,” Miller said. “Hopefully we can build a memorial for him so people can still learn from him.”


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