Having launched the Glendale bear “Meatball” to stardom and nurtured a growing fundraising and media campaign to secure him a permanent sanctuary, Sarah Aujero was understandably excited to become one of few non-official people to see the 400-pound bear in person.
Finally, after weeks of working tirelessly on his behalf, she would come face-to-face with the famous Meatball in his temporary, caged enclosure at a facility east of San Diego. And when the moment came last Thursday? He burped in her face.
“I had to double check and ask if that was a growl or a burp, and it was confirmed to be a burp,” Aujero said of the bear made famous by his return visits to the hills above Glendale for food in residential trash cans.
Aujero said Meatball seems to be a picky eater. He likes grapes and red Gatorade, but he turns his nose up at nectarines and peaches.
No matter, Meatball has other dedicated fans.
Ali Van Zee, a hospice nurse from the Bay Area, donated $2,500 to transport Meatball to a wildlife sanctuary in Colorado, but authorities there nixed the trip, saying the move would violate state regulations.
So instead, on Wednesday, Van Zee spent that money on Meatball as part of a two-day trip to see the bear in his temporary enclosure in Alpine, plunking down more than $2,000 on 350 pounds of nuts and berries at Sprouts Farmers Market. It was the biggest single purchase of nuts the store has ever received, said manager Tom Tarantino.
Van Zee, who is active in multiple bear advocacy groups, heard of Meatball the same way many of his thousands of fans did — media.
A few months ago, Meatball was featured on “The Rachel Maddow Show” after he was recorded by a television news helicopter walking through a North Glendale neighborhood and spooking an unsuspecting pedestrian looking at his cellphone.
After seeing the segment, Van Zee followed the Twitter account Aujero had set up for the bear — @TheGlendaleBear — and got involved in making sure he had a safe place to live.
She planned to buy cedar chips for the bear's bed before returning home.
“In order to save his life, we had to change his life,” Van Zee said. “The whole thing was very special just to be there and to see again what a beautiful, beautiful animal he is.”
Meanwhile, Operation Meatball has kicked into high gear.
Aujero and fellow Glendale residents have raised nearly $3,000 for the bear — which will go to the sanctuary that becomes Meatball's permanent home — by selling T-shirts, buttons and tote bags featuring a cartoonish rendering of Meatball. Other fans have stepped up to support in other ways by donating money to help build a permanent habitat, which could replace his 15-by-20-foot cage.
The cage helps the bear get acclimated to living in captivity, but it is also the only home he has. The Alpine sanctuary — Lions, Tigers & Bears — doesn't have an open-air facility for him but hopes to raise enough money to build one.
The Colorado sanctuary sued its home state this week in an effort to secure custody of Meatball.
The bear still must undergo medical procedures, such as getting neutered and implanted with a microchip, according to a statement released Wednesday by Lions, Tigers & Bears. The facility has also launched a major fundraising campaign to build him a habitat, complete with a waterfall, hammocks, trees and caves.
Wildlife officials don't typically continue to relocate bears that keep coming back to urban areas, but Meatball's large fan base and media attention saved him, Van Zee said.
“Meatball can really represent the plight of all bears,” she said. “The fact is that he got lucky.”