A lesser bear might have gone quietly.
Not Samson. Even in death, the 500-pound American black bear who gained celebrity status when he was seen lounging in a Monrovia hot tub in 1994 continued to attract attention Tuesday.
The zookeeper at the Orange County Zoo, where Samson spent his final years, fought back tears. Orange County supervisors adjourned their meeting in memory of the 27-year-old bear. And zoo director Forrest de Spain talked about building a monument, possibly a life-size bronze statue of Samson, "so he can live on."
Samson suffered from an ailment similar to Alzheimer's disease, eye problems and kidney failure. Essentially, his keepers said, the bear was a victim of old age and was euthanized Monday. Black bears typically live about 20 years in captivity, so Samson had a long life, zoo officials said.
In recent months, zoo officials said, Samson had not been his usual buoyant self. He had been hiding, staying away from the grapes and avocados he used to enjoy and hadn't used the pool in his $187,000 habitat. If he had lived much longer, he would have been in excruciating pain, officials said.
"It's devastating for a lot of reasons," said Marcy Crede, education coordinator for the zoo. "He really became . . . part of us all."
In his prime, Samson was an immense and proud specimen. And a bit of a legend.
Gary Potter, the Monrovia man who videotaped Samson lounging in his hot tub before dawn one day, said he saw the bear as a symbol of what happens when urban life meets wildlife and how the two can coexist.
"I fix cars for a living and deal with machines," Potter said. "Samson changed me. Makes you think different. Bears come to our pool all the time now, and destroy everything. I don't mind. The animals are a part of me now."
Officials at the zoo said Samson's celebrity was remarkable for the zoo. He would amble around his habitat, sit upright and seemingly lose himself in deep thought. The bear even inadvertently planted two avocado trees for himself when he stepped on seeds, driving them into the ground. Officials said Samson attracted thousands of visitors, including many who normally would not have visited the zoo.
"Without him, the zoo wouldn't be anywhere near what it is now," said Orange County Parks Supt. Tim Miller. "He put us on the map."
Zoo officials say they routinely get letters and faxes from all over the world asking about Samson. Zookeepers recently installed a Web camera near his habitat so the bear's fans could keep tabs on him on the Internet.
De Spain, who said he feels as if he lost a friend, called the decision to end the bear's life the hardest thing he's had to do in his 20-year career.
"I became extremely emotionally involved with Samson, watching him, learning from him," De Spain said. "He educated a lot of people. . . . Just to see a wild bear is very significant."
The zoo director helped save Samson from a death sentence in 1994 by offering him a home. At the time--during his hot tub days--the bear was set to be euthanized until Gov. Pete Wilson responded to a public outcry and lifted his death sentence.
"He's been our celebrity ever since," said Miller "Hopefully, we can build a memorial for him so people can still learn from him."