'Meatball' to stay in Alpine wildlife sanctuary, state official says

It appears Meatball — the 400-pound bear from Glendale that was taken to a sanctuary after several return trips from the forest — will remain a Californian.

Since being lured into a trap with McDonald’s and bacon, Meatball has been staying in a 15-by-20 foot cage at the Lions, Tigers, and Bears animal sanctuary in Alpine in east San Diego County. It was meant to be a holding spot until the bear could be transferred to a much larger sanctuary in Colorado, but state officials there blocked the plan.

California fish and game officials had said they would seek out a permanent home stateside, but since then, Lions, Tigers and Bears has embarked on a fundraising campaign to build Meatball his own habitat. The sanctuary still has a long way to go — it’s raised just $22,000 of the $250,000 needed — but the effort has been enough for the California Department of Fish and Game.

“We’re hoping that he lives a long, happy life in Alpine,” said the agency’s spokesman, Andrew Hughan, who was reached by phone Tuesday as he visited Meatball for the first time.

The bear captured the hearts of many after he made multiple visits to foothill neighborhoods, snacking on trash and raiding a freezer of his namesake — frozen meatballs. California officials twice relocated the bear deep in the Angeles National Forest, but he continued to return.

Officials don’t typically relocate wild bears, but they decided against euthanizing Meatball given his popularity.

Sarah Aujero, a Glendale resident that started the Twitter account @TheGlendaleBear that helped make Meatball famous, has been selling shirts and buttons featuring a cartoon version of the ursine to raise money for a permanent home. She and her friends have sold about 200 shirts, but are making less than expected due to the high costs of creating and shipping the merchandise.

At the same time, Pat Craig, executive director at the Wildlife Animal Sanctuary 30 miles outside of Denver, is still fighting Colorado officials over the regulation blocking Meatball from settling at his 720-acre site.

Craig, who has housed wild bears from California in the past, filed a lawsuit against Colorado claiming that the regulation was inconsistent with other rules governing wild animal sanctuaries.

“It’s sad for us,” Craig said, adding that he’d prefer the bear to be running around in his large sanctuary rather than in a cage while Lions, Tigers & Bears raises money to build a permanent facility for Meatball.

Hughan said although it may seem cruel to keep the bear in a cage, he needs to acclimate and become comfortable with life in captivity.

“He needs that time alone,” Hughan said, adding that Meatball pressed against his cage walls and seems to be plotting an escape.

The bear has been in a cage with a tub of water that he’s often photographed sitting in for about a month. Officials at the sanctuary plan to build him a larger enclosure complete with a waterfall, hammocks, trees and caves.

“The department and me personally feel that if he can’t be in the wild, this is the best place for him to live the rest of his life,” Hughan said.

Follow Brittany Levine on Google+ or Twitter: @brittanylevine.


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