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Meatball has been gravy for this animal sanctuary

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ALPINE, Calif.— For an animal whose primary goals in life were simply getting something to eat and maybe taking a snooze up a tree, a black bear now known as Meatball has shown an uncanny ability to influence his world and the people in it.

When he started boldly roaming the hilly neighborhoods of Glendale, La Crescenta and Montrose, homeowners were initially charmed but then increasingly alarmed.

When wildlife officials hit him with tranquilizer darts and relocated him deeper into the woods, he thwarted their efforts by finding his way back to suburbia.

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And now that he is a guest of an animal sanctuary in this mountainous hamlet 40 miles east of San Diego, he once again is shaping his environment — this time in a way that has engendered approval, not alarm.

Bobbi Brink, founder of the Lions Tigers & Bears sanctuary, explained the Meatball phenomenon in a letter to supporters. “I never dreamed we would take in a ‘celebrity,’” she wrote, only half in jest.

With the arrival of Meatball in August, Brink and her decade-old sanctuary suddenly received a level of attention that reached beyond San Diego County and outside the tight-knit network of animal sanctuaries in the U.S.

After all, not many other exotic animals can claim coverage from “The Rachel Maddow Show” on MSNBC, Britain’s Sky News and the San Diego Jewish World, among other outlets. Fewer still can lay claim to their own Twitter account.

Fundraising, special events and paying visitors at Lions Tigers & Bears have increased. Christmas ornaments showing Meatball with a Santa cap were particularly popular.

Even a small flap over a plan to raise funds through the sale of clippings from Meatball’s fur did little to slow the boom. “I should get in trouble more often,” Brink said.

When the California Department of Fish and Game first called Brink about housing Meatball, the residency was supposed to be temporary, while negotiations were underway for a permanent den in a 720-acre bear sanctuary near Denver.

But that plan has apparently been halted by a Colorado rule that prohibits keeping wild-caught bears in sanctuaries. Unless things change, Meatball has found his permanent home.

Meatball has gained weight and is now about 600 pounds. He isn’t bothered by the honking goose (Juanita) and quacking duck (Daffy, naturally) outside his enclosure. Still, he has not taken kindly to his nearest neighbor: Sugar Bear, another recent arrival. Bear-to-bear adjustment can take years, Brink said.

Like several other males at Lions Tigers & Bears, Meatball has been neutered to make him more manageable. His gonads were sent to the San Diego Zoo for dissection and research.

Brink, who grew up in eastern San Diego County, got the idea of an animal sanctuary in 1990 when she and her husband were living in Texas and thinking of opening a restaurant. Scanning newspaper classified ads, Brink saw numerous listings from people looking to sell or buy exotic animals.

“My jaw dropped,” she said.

The couple scuttled the restaurant idea, and Brink’s life’s work began. Lions Tigers & Bears dates from Sept. 2, 2002, when Brink returned to Alpine with Raja and Natasha, Bengal tigers whose owners were eager to find them better lodging than the concrete-floored pen where they had been kept.

A decade later, the population consists of 55 animals from 17 species, including four Bengal tigers, one leopard, three bobcats, three African lions (Bakari and his sisters Suri and Jillian), one African serval (a slender, spotted, medium-size cat), a mountain lion and a Presa Canario canine named Hobie. There are also horses, a pot-bellied pig, two llamas and various fowl.

Standing by the enclosure where Bakari is sitting majestically and occasionally roaring to display his male dominance, Brink explains the philosophy of Lions Tigers & Bears.

“We don’t buy, breed, sell or trade animals,” she said. “We strictly rescue and provide a lifetime home.”

California has some of the tightest regulations of any state about private ownership of exotic animals. Lions Tigers & Bears is regularly visited by state inspectors looking at the enclosures, the safety precautions and the health of the animals.

Brink, 46, has been among the sanctuary directors nationwide calling for tougher laws restricting private ownership of exotic animals, believed to number in the thousands. Such laws are either nonexistent or ineffectual in many states.

In 2011 the owner of an animal farm in rural Ohio, in an act of vengeance against neighbors and authorities, released tigers, leopards and lions from their cages, forcing officials to hunt down and kill nearly 50 of the wild creatures. After testimony from Brink and other sanctuary directors, the Legislature passed a bill, signed by the governor, banning ownership of several species and giving regulatory power to the state Department of Agriculture.

Brink also lobbied Congress in favor of pending legislation sponsored by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon (R-Santa Clarita) and Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Garden Grove) to provide federal oversight and to ban ownership and captive breeding of certain species.

A long, rutted road, dotted with Keep Out signs, leads to the sanctuary, located on 94 acres owned by Brink and her husband, Mark, who owns a custom car painting firm. Three electronically locked gates block access to anyone lacking the numerical codes.

The site was once a stagecoach stop and later a sheep ranch. Its mailing address is Alpine, but to locals the location, adjacent to the Cleveland National Forest, is known as Japatul Valley.

Fundraising remains a priority at Lions Tigers & Bears. Food bills and other costs run about $30,000 a month. The sanctuary, a nonprofit organization, receives no government aid.

Beyond concerns over money and politics, Brink closely monitors the health of each animal, assisted by several local veterinarians. Last week she emailed an alert that Raja, already on Celebrex for arthritis, may have a heart condition that will require a sonogram and medication.

The media buzz caused by Meatball has helped raise funds for a much larger habitat for the five black bears. Although construction is underway, the project is still about $100,000 short.

Brink remains confident the money will soon be in hand, thanks to the charisma of that restive Ursus americanus who now has his meals brought to him on a plate. It seems only fair.

“Meatball has been very good to us,” she said.

tony.perry@latimes.com


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