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Ojai memorializes Elliot, the bear that touched its heart

A monument graces the city where the visitor climbed a tree, touched hearts and was killed.

February 13, 2010|By Steve Chawkins

The tribute to the bear known as Elliot was simple and dignified.

It featured some brief speeches, a few poems, a reading from John Muir, an a cappellarendition of the old ballad "My Buddy" -- and, the centerpiece of the day, the dedication of a sculpture in one of Ojai's busiest locations.

Ojai may be the only town in America with a city-commissioned monument to a bear that met a bad end.

It weighs half a ton and consists of two curved sheets of steel representing the body and soul of the bear that captured Ojai's heart last fall. In mirror-image lettering, it says: "It's been a hard day's night" -- which was no doubt true for Elliot, who spent a day and a night up a tree before he was killed by state Department of Fish and Game officials.

"He was like an actor who walked onstage and didn't know he was the main character," the sculptor, Mark Benkert, told a group of several dozen at Friday's ceremony.

The sad tale started Oct. 10, when the 400-pound black bear wandered from the surrounding hills into a neighborhood near the heart of Ojai. He perched on a branch 30 feet up a sturdy evergreen -- which, this being Ojai, was across the street from the home of a sculptor.

"I could sit on my front porch and watch him," said Benkert, a 59-year-old transplant from the Bay Area. "He was just so docile and unaggressive. He was very relaxed. He'd look down at the people looking up at him and sometimes his leg would just dangle from the branch."

The bear -- an Elliot, Benkert thought -- soon drew local police, officials from Fish and Game and crowds of curious neighbors.

"It became a community affair," said Susan Stinsmuehlen-Amend, chairwoman of the Ojai Arts Commission. "People were in awe of a wild thing coming into their neighborhood and planting himself there. Everyone was watching as the event that turned into a tragedy unfolded."

Night fell and Elliot sat. He gave no indication of a desire to come down, stymieing authorities who had hoped to herd him back into the hills.

About 10 p.m. they shot him with a tranquilizing dart, and he climbed even farther up the tree. Hit with a second dart, he toppled at least 50 feet, landing on a fence and some cactuses. About 21 hours after he showed up on Aliso Street, he was hauled to another site and euthanized -- needlessly, according to critics -- by the Department of Fish and Game.

The grief and anger in Ojai were immediate. There were prayers for the bear in local churches. A Native American group of bear dancers came to heal the community. A new organization, the Ojai Wildlife League, vowed to prevent such incidents in the future. Benkert's next-door neighbor, a poet named Robert Peake, wrote an elegy to the bear, which he read at Friday's observance. It concluded:

I looked, and became frozen on my couch. / I blinked into the sunlight, and you were gone. / The black spot in the tree is no longer you. / It is the place that you have burned into my mind.

Assemblyman Pedro Nava (D-Santa Barbara) demanded an explanation from Fish and Game officials, who repeated their assertions that they had done nothing wrong.

The department couldn't release the bear into the wild, they said, partly because hunters in the ongoing bear season could kill it, eat it and possibly be poisoned by the tranquilizers in its tissue. And it is against state policy to temporarily house adult bears because theycan become too comfortable among humans and pose a threat when released.

The department's reasoning satisfied almost no one in Ojai, although some now agree with Fish and Game assertions that friendly onlookers spooked the bear and may have made the situation worse.

The morning after Elliot's death, Benkert fashioned a bear silhouette from some boilerplate steel he had at his house. A designer of climbing walls as well as a sculptor, he hoisted it into the tree with the help of neighbors, affixing it exactly where the bear had perched.

Months later, the city's arts commission gave him a $600 stipend to create a version of the sculpture for the plaza behind Ojai's arcade.

The sculpture will stay a year or more, unless it's purchased. Near its base, Benkert inscribed the letters JB -- the initials of a son who died at a young age.

"Another loss didn't seem right," he told the crowd Friday. "Especially if it could have been avoided."

steve.chawkins@latimes.com

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