Only in Southern California could 2014 begin this way: Just hours after L.A.'s City Hall flashed eye-opening projections in a first-of-its-kind public party in front of tens of thousands of New Year's Eve revelers, a large black bear barreled through Pasadena's Colorado Boulevard -- to the delight of millions.
Sure, it was just a representation of a bear, made mostly of palm fiber, uva grass, corn silk, strawflower, onion seed, rice, and seaweed. But it was no ordinary bear: It was Meatball The Bear, the 600-pound hillside neighborhood interloper turned ursine folk hero, who, in 2012, couldn't get enough of Glendale (and Costco meatballs), despite twice being caught and released back into the wild.
In its 100th entry in this year's Tournament of Roses Parade, the City of Glendale had perhaps the best urban wildlife awareness campaign ever: A float entry featuring Meatball and some of his forest friends, including a coyote, a mule deer, a red-tailed hawk, a skunk, a raccoon, and a swinging Eastern fox squirrel, all seen by a million spectators on the streets of neighboring Pasadena and millions more on TV worldwide.
Even before New Year's Day, the design was one of the most-anticipated Rose Parade entries. Hundreds of volunteers, including entire groups of over 30 youths each, signed up to help decorate the float at Phoenix Decorating Company's Rose Palace on Raymond Avenue. Some even got turned away. After writing an article on improving our co-existence with local wildlife, I even felt compelled to help decorate the float myself (my mother and I got to do our first-ever petal-pushing volunteer stints, inserting plastic water-filled vials of pink-hued roses and gerberas into the float's foam foundation in the area below the skunk; we also volunteered decorating Western Asset Management's safari-themed float).
The Glendale float was one of the most popular floats in the parade, winning the parade's Governor's Trophy, representing the best depiction of life in California, and a KTLA-TV poll which viewers named Glendale's as their favorite entry.
The float's theme implored human residents, "Let's Be Neighbors" with the wildlife locals. With the Verdugo Mountains and the San Rafael Hills being within city boundaries, a good percentage of Glendale sits on the wildland urban interface -- the zone where human development overlaps with natural open space -- surely this was a lesson for all to learn?
After the parade, while most of the floats sat in their traditional display at Pasadena's Victory Park, the Glendale float was towed a few miles west to its home turf, as a four-day public art installation parked in front of the Alex Theatre on Brand Boulevard. Cars slowed down while cellphone cameras poked out of windows to take a shot of this floral curiosity on the street. Pedestrians stopped, and even sat on the float's benches, and posed for selfies. I even paid a visit on that Saturday, to not only bid a last hello and goodbye to the float I helped decorate, but also gauge the public's reaction to it. As expected, whether young or old, whether they spoke English, Spanish, Armenian, Tagalog, or Mandarin, they all found delight in seeing it, despite the wilting and drooping flowers that were somewhat noticeable on the display.
With the float's "Let's Be Neighbors" title somewhat obscured by street barriers and yellow police tape, the lingering thought in my mind was whether the spirit and the message of the float came across at all, whether residents of Glendale or elsewhere in Southern California are now more "wildlife wise" and "bear aware."
I struck up a conversation with a man named Vic and a woman named Mardy, who were posing for pictures with and on the float. After mentioning that I was one of the float volunteers, the couple revealed to me that they were among the 10 Glendale residents who rode on the float during the parade. It seemed they, too, wanted to bid their last hellos and goodbyes to the float. It turned out that Mardy, a retired Glendale schoolteacher, is also a volunteer for the Wildlife Waystation, the animal sanctuary located in the Angeles National Forest. After a brief conversation about local wildlife (Somehow her explanation of the ineffectiveness of killing coyotes to control their population stuck out in my mind: "Word gets around among the coyotes that one of them has been killed, and one of the females produces an extra offspring to make up for it," she said), we both expressed our hopes that the float would be more than just a cute, animated representation of wild animals, but something that would inspire more learning and awareness of wildlife.
To gauge the effectiveness of the float's message, I decided to turn to none other than Meatball The Bear himself.
Well, perhaps a 600-pound black bear couldn't answer my questions, but his human volunteer spokesperson, Glendale resident Sarah Aujero, could. She is the 140-character voice of Meatball's 9,000-follower-strong Twitter account, and in 2012 spearheaded a social media-fueled fundraising drive, through the sales of merchandise that -- mind the pun -- bears Meatball's image, which financed the celebrity bear's move to its current home at the Lions Tigers and Bears animal sanctuary in rural San Diego county (Aujero and the sanctuary are currently embroiled in a well-publicized dispute over the custody and use of the bear's intellectual property).
"People have a better understanding of the layout of California and how special the neighborhoods that can come up to the forest are," said Aujero. "The theme of the float was very positive, I love seeing pictures of little kids who are fans of Meatball, who didn't hear of him before the Rose Parade. The float was a good way for people to see a beautiful, true story, of a true depiction of life in California."
Not every bear or wildlife encounter ends up like Meatball's. Certainly many animals have gotten the "death sentence" for their brush with Homo sapiens due to human overreaction and poor communication and coordination with wildlife management authorities. For all of his "repeat offenses," Meatball was fortunate to only get a "life sentence" -- in captivity.
"[California Department of] Fish & Wildlife can't always save every animal," said Aujero. "But I'm glad to hear that now, in encounters with bears, coyotes, and mountain lions, that more people want to save them. I think attitudes have changed a little bit; there's more coverage in the mainstream. Meatball's story was considered to be cute -- why would anyone shoot something like that? The media coverage 'humanized' his behavior, it allowed people to love him for being a bear, that's what helped save his life."
Aujero suggests that the easiest way to learn wildlife awareness practices is to utilize the resources on the Internet and social media. She pointed to a California Department of Fish and Wildlife youth film contest last year where Glendale and Pasadena high school students created online public service announcement videos to help residents become more "bear aware." The department also has a learning guide document for educators to pass that awareness to their students. She also mentioned adopting proper bear-awareness practices for everything from hiking to bear-proofing one's household trash.
"This bear has brought so many amazing things to people and created so many opportunities...Meatball has changed my life," said Aujero, whose overall affinity for animals has convinced her to go vegan.
Although it doesn't feel like it to us Polar Vortex-deprived human Southern Californians, our bear-weathered friends outside the urban heat island are currently hibernating for the winter, and our hiatus from ursine encounters shall continue for another few months. But come spring and summer, though there's only one Meatball, there will surely be other bear encounters. For those of us who live in the wildland urban interface, it's not too late to add being more "bear aware" to our list of 2014 New Year's Resolutions.