Meatball the Bear: social media celebrity saves animal

(CBS News) The world met "Meatball the Bear" -- a bear that loves meatballs -- six months ago when he made quite a splash as he hit up a suburban Los Angeles neighborhood for a snack.

That bear has now become a kind of celebrity -- and a challenge for his keepers.

One official from the California Department of Fish and Game says bear sightings have become the equivalent of a high-speed car chase. The cameras show up and the public is captivated. And all the publicity around one black bear has now saved his life -- but what happens the next time?

"Meatball the Bear" has been put in custody nearly as much as Lindsay Lohan, and yet it's that celebrity that saved his life.

Andrew Hughan, a Meatball fan and an official with the California Department of Fish and Game first got wind of the 400-pound black bear when he was reported rummaging around a garage in suburban Los Angeles this summer.

Hughan said, "The bear just walked right in, popped the freezer door open, and about 2:30 in the morning, he was eating this large bag of meatballs."

He's gone by Meatball ever since -- but a better name might have been Boomerang. Meatball just kept coming back. He was caught raiding the trash, and looking for midnight snacks in backyard beehives.

Normally, that kind of affinity for people makes wild bears a public nuisance -- that's the animal-friendly way of saying needs to be put down.

Sarah Aujero didn't want the bear to die or for people to be afraid of him, so she decided to humanize him. So she started a Twitter page -- GlennBearian was his handle, named after Glendale, his new-found neighborhood.

Aujero said, "Almost every hour, I'm getting people tweeting into the bear, people are sending bear hugs, they want to know how he's doing."

Meatball soon had more than 25,000 followers, which, combined with his local TV fame, likely saved Meatball from being euthanized. Meatball was captured and brought to an animal sanctuary near San Diego called Lions, Tigers and Bears.

Bobbi Brink, founder of Lions, Tigers and Bears, said, "I think what's different is he's really loved, where a lot of them they're not so lucky as Meatball and they're put down."

Meatball is in quarantine for the moment but his keepers hope that he will soon get a similar enclosure as the other black bears at the sanctuary. But first, Brink has to raise $250,000 to build it.

Ali Van Zee is a hospice nurse who flew all the way from Sacramento to visit Meatball -- and brought a $10,000 donation with her. Van Zee said, "(Meatball and I) had a thing right from day one I think. ... I had to put the face on this story."

There are plumbers who have come forward to volunteer their time to build Meatball a pool. Utilities companies that have donated fence poles, and wire, and even Meatball's Twitter valet, Aujero, is selling buttons and tote bags. She can't keep either in stock.

Meatball, though, is the exception. The reality is there aren't the resources to capture and relocate every wild bear.

Hughan said, "We took every step that we could not to have to destroy this bear. We're very aware of its place in the public."

Meatball made just enough public mischief to save his own skin. He may never be free again, but he's garnered so many friends, he'll never be alone either.

In the past two months, the animal sanctuary has raised $90,000 for Meatball's enclosure.

For more information on Meatball's habitat fund, go to lionstigersandbears.org or call (619) 659-8078.

Watch Lee Cowan's full report in the video above.

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