Meatball, the bear caught snacking on local trash cans in 2012, is the star… (City of Glendale )
He has been feared. And loved. And worried over. And touted as a new-style ursine celebrity in the Twitter age.
Now Meatball the bear — or at least his happy-go-lucky, mechanical likeness — will be the centerpiece of a Rose Parade float sponsored by Glendale, the mountain-rimmed city he just couldn't keep his paws from throughout much of last year.
"It's going to be a head turner," said Glendale Mayor Dave Weaver, speaking of a 35-foot-long float featuring Meatball rising from a trash can, a concept approved by the Glendale City Council this week.
"People really came to care about that bear," Weaver added. "We've got to make sure the snout looks like Meatball's snout, because if not folks are going to say, 'Hey, that's not my bear!'"
At the New Year's Day parade, Meatball will be seen by roughly 700,000 attendees and 84 million television viewers worldwide — a warm-hearted, high-profile embrace by a municipality that once considered him a potentially dangerous nuisance.
The 400-pound black bear burst into the limelight in March 2012, when he broke into a refrigerator at a Glendale residence and treated himself to Costco meatballs. Also known as "Glen Bearian" or @TheGlendaleBear on Twitter, Meatball proved smarter and more persistent than your average bear. He managed to return again and again to the city's neighborhoods, foraging not just for meatballs but for tuna and oranges and other tossed-away food. He often appeared only on days when residents would put out their trash bins.
As residents were told to stay indoors for their safety, California Department of Fish and Game officials shot Meatball with sleep-inducing darts and trucked him off to a nearby forest. But somehow he found his way back to the Glendale area, forcing wardens to tranquilize him and send him packing again.
In August — his social-media-fueled popularity approaching Yogi Bear status — Meatball returned to the foothills once more, only this time he was caught in La Cañada Flintridge and shipped off to a wild animal preserve 45 miles east of San Diego.
Meatball no longer prowls Glendale, but his memory certainly lives on there. On Tuesday night the cash-strapped City Council unanimously approved spending $155,000 on the float, an increase in cost of about 50% over recent Glendale floats. City officials justified the expense because this will be the 100th Rose Parade float sponsored by the city. They also hope to raise at least half of the money from private sources.
So far, however, fundraising is far off that target: $10,000 has been pledged by a Glendale developer, but only $160 by residents.
Weaver said he was sure donations would pour in once news spread about the Meatball theme.
"The idea is already a huge success," he said. "We wanted something fun, whimsical and friendly, and that's Meatball. He's been adopted by Glendale."
Titled "Let's Be Neighbors" and standing about 18 feet tall, the float will showcase the notion that residents must live in harmony with wildlife. Surrounded by smaller animals, Meatball will take center stage, his massive head and torso rising in and out of a tall trash can.
With plans to ship him to Colorado having fallen through, Meatball currently lives in a small pen about the size of a master bedroom, said Bobbi Brink, director of the Lions, Tigers & Bears animal sanctuary near San Diego. Brink explained that the bear is kept in the cordoned-off area because of fears he might fight with another bear on the property.
Brink said construction should finish soon on a lush, 6-acre area in which Glendale's favorite bear will be able to roam freely.