With Samson the bear gone to that great hot tub in the sky, Orange County Zoo officials are moving quickly to acquire another California black bear.
Actually, make that two bears--because apparently no one bear can replace Samson.
Zoo officials are already considering a bear in the Sacramento area that's in the hands of officials of the state Department of Fish and Game.
Orange County Zoo Director Forrest de Spain, an avid Yosemite camper, also has contacted officials at that national park to let them know that the zoo would accept a captured bear that is considered a nuisance.
"We're looking for two bears to be in the exhibit, preferably bears in need of rescue that are scheduled to be euthanized," De Spain said.
Preferably two female bears. According to De Spain, the zoo is willing to accept another male but would prefer females because male bears typically are ornery when it comes to sharing exhibit space.
"Female bears get along better than having a male in the same exhibit. But a male and female can get along if we match them up correctly," he said.
The search is part of a campaign to enhance the zoo, which also is seeking accreditation by a national zoo organization.
Officials of the county Harbors, Beaches and Parks Division said they should know within a week whether they can get one or two bears to replace Samson, who died this month.
However it turns out, Samson is going to be a tough act to follow. The 500-pound American black bear became a celebrity after he was videotaped lounging in a Monrovia hot tub in 1994. He developed a worldwide following.
Samson on the Internet
Letters, faxes and e-mails inquiring about Samson prompted zoo authorities to install a Web camera near his habitat so Internet surfers could view him daily.
Samson was euthanized because he was suffering from eye problems, kidney failure and an ailment similar to Alzheimer's disease. He was estimated to be 27. Black bears typically live only about 20 years in captivity, zoo officials said.
Tim Miller, county parks operations manager, acknowledged that Samson "put our zoo on the map." The zoo, a county park facility, is in Irvine Regional Park.
In addition to seeking new bears, park officials have proposed adding a position for an educational program administrator in their 2001-02 budget. That is one of the steps needed to fulfill an accreditation requirement by the American Zoo and Aquarium Assn.
Most large zoos are accredited by the association, which inspects animal care, facilities and the financial condition of applicants.
"It's like getting the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval among zoos," said Mark Della Pietra from the zoo association's offices in Silver Spring, Md.
Once accredited, the zoo can share in breeding programs, apply for animals from other zoos, and seek grant money with major zoos and institutions nationwide, Miller said. Park officials will ask the county Board of Supervisors for its approval on the zoo education program June 19.
Compared to the Los Angeles Zoo, which has 1.4 million visitors annually and hundreds of exotic species, the Orange County Zoo is tiny. It gets about 300,000 visitors each year and has about 100 animals. It features animals native to the Southwest, from small rodents to a mountain lion.
Because of its size, De Spain said, the zoo has developed a close relationship with the nonprofit Orange County Zoological Society, responsible for transforming the zoo with nearly $500,000 from private and corporate donations.
In addition to raising money for Samson's exhibit, the society raised $87,000 for new digs for Chipper and Chopper, two North American beavers whose antics have delighted crowds.
So far, the society has raised $90,000 for a harbor seal exhibit that should be completed in the fall. Sea World in San Diego is holding three seals for the exhibit, and zoo officials have a fourth on hold from a rescue facility.
The zoo's program of taking in rescued animals may become Samson's most meaningful legacy.
De Spain said that on a recent camping trip to Yosemite, he heard of a problem bear that had to be put to death.
"It's so sad to hear of them being put down," he said. "If we can bring one down here, we can bring . . . awareness about how humans are encroaching in the wild, which was our reason for bringing Samson. He was the poster bear for the problems wild animals were having because of urban encroachment."