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Bears are all the rage in Monrovia

Nothing beats the gluttonous life offered in Monrovia.

It’s a magical place where half-eaten slices of pizza and the salty remnants of Thai takeout abound. Here the grass is laden with rotting avocados and pomegranates and aching paws can be soaked in a choice of dozens of swimming pools.

It’s all enough to citify a country bear.

Once a well-kept secret limited to a few adventurous souls, Monrovia seems to have become all the rage with the bears of the San Gabriel Mountains.

Over the last few years, that’s meant garbage-strewn streets, broken fences and a few scary face-to-face encounters. Some experts even believe the dumpster divers are descendants of a group of incorrigible bears relocated to the area decades ago.

Although almost everyone in the bedroom community of 37,000 agrees something needs to be done, a rift has formed between residents who call themselves bear advocates and those who say the city’s soft spot for bears allowed the situation to get out of hand. And it’s regularly debated whether this is a case of bad bears or humans with bad habits.

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Samson might receive a different reception in Monrovia now.

The 600-pound bear became the city’s unofficial mascot after appearing in the early 1990s. With a penchant for taking dips in hot tubs and eating from trash cans, Samson had neighbors congregating for glimpses of him. When he was trapped and carted away, the city rallied to save him from being euthanized.

Samson made national headlines and spent his last years at the Orange County Zoo.

But urban-curious bears are no longer a novelty. The Monrovia Police Department responded to more than 450 bear calls last summer and has taken to logging repeat offenders -- identified by size, color and mannerisms -- into its database with a photo and assigned number. Just before the weather cooled and the bears faded back into the forest, authorities had begun to consider killing them.

Many residents think that’s an extreme step to take in a foothill city that pushes up against the bear’s natural home.

“We moved here because of the wildlife,” accountant Boni Forte said. “We love watching the bear coming across the yard. There’s so much you can see, and you should embrace it instead of calling the city and saying, ‘There’s a bear out here.’ Just wait and he’ll go away.”

Forte, 62, and her husband live in an area locals call “the interface” -- a maze of winding, narrow cul-de-sacs that abuts the Angeles National Forest.

Residents love to regale one another with stories of their uninvited guests’ antics. But Jeff Bell, an attorney who lives down the street, said friendly attitudes toward bears only perpetuate the problem.

“I want the bear to know when it comes to my house, it’s not going to be a pleasant experience,” he said.

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In the 1930s, 11 black bears were released in the San Gabriel Mountains after officials found them eating from open trash bins in Yosemite National Park. Although the bears were not collared and tracked, some academics believe they are relatives of the current bears.

A UC Davis study on the population genetics of California bears found that most of the bears analyzed in Southern California had a DNA signature closely related to Yosemite bears. Five of the bears in the study lived just above Monrovia.

“We think that they are the direct descendants of the original translocation in the 1930s,” doctoral student researcher Sarah K. Brown said.

But biologist Kevin Brennan of the California Department of Fish and Game says it’s likely the first pack of relocated bears didn’t survive. And although bad bear genetics makes for a fun tale, Brennan said the true source of the bears’ misbehavior is good old-fashioned garbage.

Despite citywide warnings, garbage is still left out overnight. The “trash scofflaws,” as one resident called them, draw the anger of many people who awake to littered streets.

Several years ago, Monrovia’s trash service tested a few dozen bear-resistant cans from BearSaver. The Ontario-based company claimed a success rate of more than 99%. Monrovia proved to be an exception.

“The residents overfilled the trash cans,” said Steve Thompson of BearSaver. “They bent the lids, which created a gap and the bears got in. It’s just a deterrent, but Monrovia wanted miracles.”

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Once easily frightened away with tennis balls or loud sirens, the bears have grown bolder. They sometimes open unlocked doors and wander inside garages.

The animal control department responds to every call, and the officer has the choice of doing nothing if the bear is not a perceived as a threat or attempting to drive it away with pepper spray or a beanbag gun.

“But now with the problem bears it doesn’t even scare them,” former Monrovia Police Capt. Rick Miglia said.

Miglia, who continues to work on the bear problem, said the department has found itself having to walk a fine line in a community struggling with its affection for bears and the need to see real change. He wants the public to be prepared for the possibility of killing the bears.

“The answer isn’t killing bears, but if a bear crosses the line in their behavior and they become systematically and habitually dangerous, we’re not waiting for an attack,” he said.

Others insist that it’s all a matter of rightful territory where the original owners deserve respect. Monrovia, after all, was bear country first.

corina.knoll@latimes.com


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