It was right at 9 a.m. Sunday when I arrived at the quiet cul-de-sac just above Foothill Boulevard where “Meatball” or “Glen Bearian” or whatever you call a 400-pound black bear who has discovered the joy of suburban garbage was nestled comfortably in the cradle of branches of a tall pine tree.
“He’s at least 75 to 100 feet up there,” said Glendale Police Sgt. Tom Lorenz as his officers explained what was going on to a family leaving their Frederick Avenue for church. "It’s a good thing it was early Sunday. No TV helicopters, no huge crowds, no social media feeding the buzz."
Just a few of us cops and two reporters with our smartphones snapping pictures and videos and two California Department of Fish and Game officers with tranquilizer guns pointed at the 400-pound intruder who was back in town for a feast after a 25-mile trek from the forest where he had been dropped off back on April 10 following his last foray into disturbing the peace and calm.
Since then, “R-210” -- as the yellow tag affixed to his ear back then identifies him -- had become something of a folk hero, a wild beast in suburbia who posed a threat to himself and others, grounds to take him into custody for a psychiatric examination if he were human.
As Meatball peered down from above, he seemed to be calculating what his chances of escape might be and what route offered the best chance to elude the gathering storm of creatures down below.
A bunch of kids gathered atop a garage roof, neighbors came out and began snapping pictures, a small crowd of passersby gathered down at Foothill, a CBS reporter and two cameramen were all over the story as a couple of search and rescue officers cruising by joined in as the number of officials built up.
“He could stay up there a day, a week if he wants to,” said Fish and Game Lt. Marty Wall. “It’s a tough situation. We can’t tranquilize until he’s got both feet on the ground and then it can take five minutes or 30 minutes for him to fall.”
Tough is right.
Wall and his team are operating in the fish bowl of publicity. Nothing goes viral like a good animal story and the beastly bears of the suburban wild are about as good as it gets. It’s why I reached out to Lorenz -- the only city public information officer I ever met who carries a gun -- reminding journalists at least half intentionally of their social responsibilities.
“I want to stalk the wild bear, ridealong with your volunteer naturalists or whoever is going to track him
down,” I told him last week.
Sure enough, the call came early Sunday.
"He’s up a tree. Get here fast.”
My interest was purely journalistic. I loved the dilemma facing the state wildlife officials who are dealing with these kinds of problems a lot these days and, in this case, were dealing with a high-profile bear situation that threatened to turn into a public relations disaster.
What if they have to kill -- or even inadvertently kill -- Meatball? Worse, what if they hesitate and someone, a human someone, gets hurt or killed?
It would be an understatement to say Fish and Game officials were focused intensively on their mission to get the bear down from the tree and out of harm’s way as safely as possible.
They blocked his escape toward Foothill with a cop car. They cut off his route through an alley with a Fish and Game officer. They got the press and bystanders to move back and then they opened fire.
Bean bag guns, one round after another, pop, pop, pop, pop.
I think Meatball was more annoyed at the sound than the impact, but he moved down a branch and got zapped in the butt with a bean bag gun shot from behind and then another full frontal and all of a sudden he was clamoring down the tree and off and running.
This bear is no fool. He ran the only direction humanoids hadn’t covered, crashed through a fence and was off and running right along the wash behind the houses as one and then another tranquilizer dart hit its target with half a dozen officers in pursuit.
It took a bit of maneuvering to get to the other side of the wash to try to see what was happening. We circled around through dead-end streets trying to catch up with the bear and finally found an entrance to slip through into the wash.
A few hundred yards away, there was Meatball lying still on the ground, sound asleep, two officers nearby calling for more tranquilizers to keep him that way awhile.
They had to cut an opening in a nearby school fence to drag the sleeping giant to the playing field where he was put aboard a truck for another journey back into the wild and set free a few hours later.
By then, a bit of a crowd had arrived at the school, and more news media.
Meatball was alive and will be kicking again soon. Nobody was hurt.
Just another Sunday morning interrupted to do what has to be done if you’re a cop or an animal rescuer.
Nobody put up a banner saying, “Mission Accomplished.” Their bosses probably said, “Good thing you didn’t screw that up.”
After all, it was just a dumb bear roaming down a suburban street looking for easy pickings in garbage cans and trying to stay out of trouble high up in a tree.