'Meatball' winner pays her prize forward

The person who submitted the highest EBay bid for a package of memorabilia commemorating Glendale's most famous bear, “Meatball,” never expected to win, but when she did, she gave some of the items back.

For San Diego resident Pamela Ricci, her $2,000 bid was more about raising money for the wildlife sanctuary that's become the bear's permanent home than getting to keep the collectibles.

In August, state officials took the now-500-pound bear to a San Diego County sanctuary after he snacked on food in local trash cans and roamed foothill neighborhoods for months. The sanctuary, Lions, Tigers & Bears, held the auction to make money for Meatball's new $250,000 habitat.

There was one item, though, that Ricci wanted to keep: Meatball's large blue paw print.

When she got it in the mail last week, the self-proclaimed animal-lover had to keep herself from hugging it so as not to wrinkle the paper. Her daughter, a preschool teacher, stroked the paw print that reminded her of a kid's art project.

Ricci told sanctuary officials to keep the wildlife ear tag that also came with her EBay win so Lions, Tigers & Bears could resell it.

“We're just happy he ended up in a sanctuary and he wasn't euthanized,” Ricci said.

Her family felt a connection to Meatball ever since learning about him months ago on the news, she added. Her husband, an Italian, also likes meatballs and the couple thought the bear's nickname was cute.

“It endeared him a little more to our hearts,” Ricci said.

Typically, bears that make multiple visits to residential neighborhoods after becoming habituated to human foods are euthanized by California Department of Fish & Game officials, but Meatball was a different story.

After a Twitter account was started on behalf of the bear following news reports of his food endeavors — including his love of frozen Costco meatballs — the animal shot to stardom. He even made national headlines after a helicopter news crew caught his face-to-face encounter with a man as the bear strolled through La Crescenta several months ago.

Meatball was tranquilized twice by Fish & Game officials and transported deep into the Angeles National Forest. He returned each time until a game warden used fast food from McDonald's to trap him for transport to the wildlife sanctuary.

But Lions, Tigers & Bears didn't have a habitat for the bear, which is currently living in a 15-by-20-foot caged quarantine facility. The sanctuary has raised $120,000 so far for the $250,000, four-acre habitat.

Jen Jenkins, a Lions, Tigers & Bears spokeswoman, said the plan is to give the rest of the memorabilia to the next highest bidder. The sanctuary also has extra paw prints they can send out, she said.

Lions, Tigers & Bears is still selling holiday ornaments featuring Meatball in a Santa hat added with Photoshop. They've sold 60 so far and will continue to make more to meet demand, Jenkins said.


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

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