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Meatball the Bear a boon for exotic animal sanctuary

February 4, 2013 | 11:43 am

The black bear known as Meatball sits in a tub of water at the Lions Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary in Alpine, Calif.. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

With the arrival of a meatball-loving black bear in August, a decade-old animal sanctuary suddenly found itself in the spotlight.

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.

But Meatball, the bear who once roamed the foothill neighborhoods of Glendale, La Crescenta and Montrose, isn't your typical animal.

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.

Fundraising, special events and paying visitors have increased at Lions Tigers & Bears. 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 Wildlife 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 bears caught in the wild 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.

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 were being 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.

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.

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.

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-- Tony Perry

Photo: The black bear known as Meatball sits in a tub of water at the Lions Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary in Alpine, Calif.. Credit: Don Bartletti / Los Angeles Times

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