ALPINE, Calif. - The Lions, Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary in the East County foothills of San Diego celebrated the fourth anniversary of the arrival of Meatball Thursday morning.
The 500-pound bear was brought to the facility from Los Angeles County after it was caught raiding refrigerators.
When state Fish and Game trappers snared the California brown bear in August 2012, he had already been caught and returned to the Angeles National Forest twice. At that point, wildlife experts concluded that Meatball had grown too reliant on humans, foraging through garbage in foothill cities.
He earned his nickname when he was spotted raiding a garage freezer for Costco meatballs in Glendale. On another occasion, he was spotted taking a dip in a pool in La Canada-Flintridge.
"Food is what attracts them -- they follow their noses," said Bobbi Brink, the LTB founder and director. "Bears have an incredible sense of smell. They can smell as far away as 20 miles upwind."
LTB officials called Meatball the poster bear for "habituation," meaning not afraid to enter areas of human habitation.
He was originally only going to stay in Alpine until he could be transferred to a larger sanctuary in Colorado, but wildlife officials there blocked those plans, citing state law. While the "birthday" celebration is Thursday, he was first brought to LTB on Aug. 29, 2012, according to Brink.
Those interested in visiting the sanctuary to wish Meatball a happy birthday can call (619) 659-8078 to schedule an appointment. The cost is $33 for adults and $16 for children. Admission is free for sanctuary members.
The price helps cover the $10,000 annual cost of providing for bears, which consume upwards of 20 pounds of raw fish, nuts and produce each day, LTB said.