BIG BEAR LAKE — For 90 years the closest thing to a grizzly that residents of this mountain hamlet have seen has been one carved from pine--a bear like the 14-footer standing at rigid attention outside the Big Bear Prospector restaurant down by the lake.
But townspeople got a glimpse of three decidedly animated ones Tuesday when they crowded into the community's tiny zoo. They had saved the lives of a mother grizzly and her two cubs through an unusual campaign that started with bake sales, aluminum can drives and storefront raffles.
Before it was over, the effort to "bring 'em back alive," as the locals put it, extended far beyond this mountaintop 80 miles east of Los Angeles.
Donations totaling $108,000 were collected from schoolchildren and bear lovers from as far away as Florida and New Jersey. Volunteers rushed to design and build a 10,000-square-foot, pine-shaded grizzly habitat at the community-run Moonridge Animal Park and prevent Montana authorities from killing the mischievous bears.
The work was worth the effort, residents decided as the huge animals were put on display at their new home for the first time. Local residents are being invited again today to see the grizzlies; the bears will be on view for the public starting Saturday.
"This is great," decided Howard Cripe, a retired Big Bear City phone engineer who stuffed dollar bills in grizzly donation canisters that lined local shopkeepers' counters during the three-month campaign. "The place looks good. The bears look happy."
Feisty might be a better word.
The cubs--now 16 months old and pushing 200 pounds--were busily rearranging rocks in their chain-link enclosure and playing with a beer keg floating in a 6-foot-deep pond. Their mother was exploring the thick trunk of a towering Jeffrey pine.
"They don't climb. Their claws aren't curved like black bears'," explained zoo volunteer Paul Lindstrom. "It's very well documented that grizzlies don't climb."
Just then the big bear started to climb. She effortlessly shimmied about 30 feet up before stopping to gaze at her new neighborhood--weekenders' cabins across the street and, further up the hill, the Bear Mountain ski resort and the mountains themselves.
It's that kind of adventuresome spirit that got the three bears in hot water to begin with.
Montana wildlife officials designated them "nuisance bears" last fall after they were caught repeatedly raiding garbage cans and dude ranch cabins on national forest land just outside Yellowstone Park.
Authorities tried repeatedly to scare the bears away; efforts to relocate them into remote wilderness areas were also unsuccessful. Officials decided to take them into captivity and try to find a zoo that would take them. If they were unsuccessful, the animals would have to be destroyed, they warned.
Temporary quarters were found at a Seattle zoo. But because of a planned remodeling project, operators of that facility could not keep them much past March.
The outlook for the bears seemed gloomy until Moonridge curator Don Richardson learned of their plight.
Richardson knew that the San Bernardino Mountains' last grizzly had been hunted down and shot in 1906. When he suggested that maybe it was time for the big bears to come back to Big Bear, people decided to come to the animals' rescue.
Things started slowly in late January, with promises of donated concrete, 4,300 feet of steel rebar and metal doors for bear dens.
"There were lots of bake sales. Children collected pennies and dimes," zoo volunteer Melinda Hope--clad in a well-worn "Grizzlies Come Home" hat--recalled Tuesday. Then word about the bears' plight started spreading beyond the mountaintop and donations started pouring in.
"We were astounded and thrilled. Every day my mouth was hanging open," Hope said.
Indians from the San Manuel tribe down the mountain donated thousands of dollars from bingo and casino parlor proceeds. Second- and third-graders from Rancho Palo Verde School in Apple Valley donated $569 raised from can recycling and snack money, said Paddy Speyers, president of the zoo support group, Friends of Moonridge Park.
And on Tuesday it seemed as though everyone in town was one of those friends.
San Manuel tribal members were there to bless the bears and name the mother. From now on she'll be known as "Tutu," meaning "grandmother," tribal chairman Henry Duro explained.
"The enclosure looks very secure and the bears look very content," said retired electronics engineer Al McCain of Big Bear Lake.
Said neighbor Lorraine Sharp: "I'm so tickled it's so big. I'd hate to see them in a small area. They're feeling at home in a hurry."
Richardson said low-voltage electrical wiring will be wrapped around the big Jeffrey pine to dissuade the bears from climbing high enough to use it as an escape route over the enclosure's tall chain-link fence.
Until then, said first-day visitor Jonda Rourke, folks in Big Bear know what to do.
"If she climbs up and gets stuck up there," she said, "we'll call the fire department."