Sanctuary, Meatball's biggest fan in tug-of-war over rights

Sanctuary, Meatball's biggest fan in tug-of-war over rights
A battle over intellectual property rights has broken out between the sanctuary where the famed bear named Meatball now lives and the woman who brought him widespread attention. (Courtesy of Lions, Tigers & Bears)

The San Diego County animal sanctuary that took in Meatball, the Glendale bear, now wants the woman who turned him into a social media darling, effectively saving his life, to sign away all legal claims to the bear's name.

Meatball, who got his nickname after he was caught eating frozen Costco meatballs from a garage refrigerator in 2012, had two high-profile captures and relocations back into the Angeles National Forest. Per state policy, the bear would be killed by wildlife officials if they had to trap him a third time.


But then Sarah Aujero stepped in, branding Meatball on Twitter with @TheGlendaleBear and campaigning to relocate him to a permanent animal sanctuary.

The tactic worked. Fueled by aerial television news footage of Meatball strolling through a neighborhood north of Glendale, wildlife officials trapped the bear a third time.


The effort to save Meatball quickly grew into a full-fledged movement, complete with branded shirts, tote-bags and stickers that were sold to raise funds for his own enclosure at his new home in San Diego County called Lions, Tigers & Bears.

The facility, in Alpine, east of San Diego, embraced the bear's celebrity status in an effort to raise money for his new habitat.

But now the sanctuary where Meatball has been living for more than a year wants Aujero to sign a contract handing over full control of the Twitter account and all rights to the bear's name, which the Glendale resident copyrighted before the bear was transported there in August 2012 by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Attorneys for the sanctuary sent a "cease and desist" letter demanding that she stop tweeting as Meatball.


She declined, but told the sanctuary in an Oct. 31 email that it was free to use Meatball's name for fundraising efforts.

Her refusal to sign got a tart response from Lions, Tigers & Bears: No longer would Aujero be allowed on the sanctuary's property.

"I've done nothing but help them because they have the bear; and all of a sudden, they cut me out of the picture," Aujero said. "I feel like I'm being bullied a little bit."

In a statement, Lions, Tigers & Bears founder Bobbi Brink said after Aujero refused to relinquish trademark rights, attorneys for the sanctuary advised that they "ask her not [to] enter the property."

The brawl over the bear's name came after a publisher asked Aujero to write a children's book about Meatball. Aujero said she planned to donate a portion of the proceeds to the sanctuary.

But Brink said a donor already wrote a book about Meatball and wanted to give 100% of the proceeds to the nonprofit.

Lions, Tigers & Bears is still fundraising for a new habitat for Meatball, the price of which has grown from $250,000 to $325,000. The sanctuary remains $80,000 short.

Since starting the Twitter account, Aujero has launched a range of merchandise to raise funds for the sanctuary, often using her own money to bridge the gap between expenditures and donations.


"I don't make money off the bear," Aujero said.

But Brink nonetheless cast doubt over Aujero's intentions.

"It is our mission to protect animals from exploitation," Brink said.

Not signing over the rights to Meatball's name is just that, said sanctuary spokesman Jen Jenkins. In addition, Brink said that because Aujero plans to move out of state soon, handing over the Twitter account would be a "natural transition."

Aujero, who is moving to Oregon, disagrees.

The brouhaha comes as the city of Glendale prepares to host a fundraiser of its own to offset the costs of its 2014 Tournament of Roses parade float starring an animatronic likeness of Meatball bouncing in a trash can. The Nov. 23 event at Deukmejian Wilderness Park will feature a meatball-tasting competition, which was Aujero's idea.

Despite the flap with Lions, Tigers & Bears, Aujero said she doesn't want others to stop donating to Meatball's cause.

"All I want from [Lions, Tigers & Bears] is to let me continue to help the bear that I helped save," she said.


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