1105 news Photo by: Erin Ellwood

Bear death prompts formation of animal rights group

The Ojai Wildlife League is criticizing Fish and Game officials for euthanizing a wild bear last month, as the head game warden defends his role in killing the 400-pound animal

By Paul Sisolak 11/05/2009

There’s a sense of guilt, responsibility even, that hangs in the air underneath a tree in the 200 block of Aliso Street in Ojai. The flowers and candles littering the ground resemble the site of an accident scene, or a grave. On a cactus leaf laid out, the words “Forgive Us” are scrawled.

Residents are paying their respects for the death of a very unconventional member of the community, writing poetry, sculpting art and holding ceremonial events, humanizing an animal who may have attacked, rather than befriended, under different circumstances.

But it’s the formation of a special group that’s thrust the Ojai Valley into the spotlight this month, a group whose members are taking an active role in criticizing state game wardens in what they say was cruelty for euthanizing a 400-pound bear that posed no apparent threat after climbing up the tree in Downtown Ojai on Oct. 10.

“As an organization, we don’t have an answer at this point. We know how tragic this was,” says Chris Nottoli, a charter member of the newly formed Ojai Wildlife League. “This bear died unnecessarily.”

Promptly assembled, the club is composed of several impassioned Ojai people who feel wardens from the California Department of Fish and Game did not bother to seek humane alternatives and save the bear’s life after it was tranquilized, instead later euthanizing it with a gunshot to the head.

Yet Nottoli and others are not just seeking community remembrances for the deceased animal, or even a better explanation from the warden who pulled the trigger. They’re seeking some leverage, some authority, in determining how officials should respond the next time a bear or any other large animal meanders into Ojai.

“Our goal is to insert an organization between the protocols that are in place and the subjective decision-making process. Let’s try to take as much of that leeway, just to give them more options,” said Nottoli.

“The tricky part,” he continued, “is why some people make subjective decisions one way or the other.”

Sue Williamson, who also belongs to the league, hopes its members can obtain the training necessary for the group to develop itself on the level of the BEAR League in Lake Tahoe, an organization that is licensed to respond and intervene with bear sightings in lieu of calling Fish and Game.

Williamson was among the many onlookers at the scene when state officials arrived, and said members of a trained organization on par with the BEAR League would have found other ways to remove the bear, which retreated into the treetops out of fear.

“When a bear gets scared, it goes up a tree,” she said. “It would be animal cruelty, under any circumstances, to tranquilize a bear in a tree, knowing it’s going to fall down and break all the bones in its body.”

Amid all the dissension against fish and game officials, the head warden responsible for dispatching the bear has defended his department’s policies.

As docile as the animal appeared, Capt. Roland Takayama, who is the primary responding game warden for Ventura County, said capturing the bear and releasing it back into the wild offered too many complications and liabilities to risk.

“About 90 percent of our bears, even if they haven’t damaged anything or attacked anyone, end up back getting into trouble,” Takayama said. “It’s a sad thing, and the public demands that we try and out (our) own personal feelings … (but) it’s not about myself or anyone else going there and making an assessment of that animal and saying, ‘We can just back off and let this wander the streets of Ojai.’ ”

For one, Takayama explained that the bear had become lost and disoriented when it appeared in Downtown Ojai, ideally looking for food; letting it loose elsewhere in the wild would further confuse it, where other territorial bears are present.

“Bears that end up in urban areas and human development are there for a reason, not just bad luck,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing people don’t want to hear or recognize. It’s really doing the bear a disservice if we have to plunk him down somewhere he doesn’t recognize.”

More important is that because black bear hunting is currently in season, tranquilizing the bear and letting it loose could have endangered hunters who kill the animals for their meat. Tranquilizer toxins stay in the bear’s body and can be poisonous to others, according to Takayama.

According to a count from the Department of Fish and Game, 884 bears have been harvested statewide in the current hunting season, which ends either late next month or when 1,700 tags are received from licensed hunters.

The warden also said that the bear needed tranquilizing after it became evident it wasn’t coming down from its perch. According to department rules, that constitutes a safety hazard.

“If it comes down — and that’s what we were absolutely hoping it would do — we would escort (it) in the right direction,” he said. “In my view, we took more liability of backing off and letting it come down than somebody harvesting the meat and getting sick.”

The bear, tranquilized with telazol, was taken away out of Ojai and euthanized at the Fillmore Hatchery, an official report provided by Fish and Game shows.

Fish and Game responses vary according to the off-hunting season, a bear’s size, demeanor and other factors. In May, officials tranquilized a 250-pound bear that had wandered into a Camarillo apartment building. It was let loose.

In April, the Santa Paula Police Department came under fire for shooting and killing a stray, 15-pound lion cub. Fish and Game was not involved.

Following the incident, Santa Paula Police Chief Steve MacKinnon called for an outside evaluation of the situation, where it was determined that officers used unnecessary force on the animal. A five-part animal management plan was produced, which was adopted by the police department in July.

“Based on that review, we did in-service training and we also wrote a new policy, not specifically on mountain lions, but on all wildlife calls,” MacKinnon said. “We found, essentially because there’s a lack of training in general, police departments don’t typically train for this call of service.”

The Ojai Wildlife League is aiming to procure such a plan. In the meantime, Ojai residents continue to commemorate the deceased animal through an online presence (ojaiwildlifeleague.com) and a series of events. One is a bear dance ceremony on Nov. 7, 5 p.m., in Ojai. Information on the event is at blueskywaters.com/beardancehome.html.

Williamson hopes that the incident will change the way wildlife response is handled throughout Ventura County.

“The most important thing is to realize is that these bears are not dangerous. They’re like the clowns of the forest,” she said. “I think that’s what touched everybody; they saw this bear up a tree looking so sweet. It was heart wrenching.”  


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I am completely against what Fish and Game had done on this occasion as they have a history of excessive force; it is not simply about this bear. I am fed up with these human-wildlife encounters that consistently end with Fish and Game ending the animals life. Yes F&G has to worry about liability but I think they need to improve their response system and exhaust options, before actions such as euthanasia. However I do not agree completely with Williamson that "these bears are not dangerous...they are like the clowns of the forest..." The bears are not inherently dangerous guaranteeing attack, but there is a protocol for how wildlife encounters should be dealt with. Wildlife CAN be dangerous and so we must act accordingly, keeping our distance, backing away from an encounter (there is more to it than this, you can look it up for each type of animal there is a protocol). We need to have tolerance and patience with wildlife encounters, AND we also need to be responsible for educating one another in our cities, on how to react when wildlife meet humans. So people know what to do, how to decipher a threat from non-threat. This wildlife group should focus on training Ojai residents (and beyond) on how to respond to these encounters. Good idea.

posted by Lorie on 11/05/09 @ 09:26 a.m.

It would be interesting to know how many animals have been killed under Takayama's watch, as compared to the warden before him.

I question Mr. Takayama's assumptions about this bear. It was seen drinking out of a fountain and could very well have been thirsty. It came to town three days before it rained, at the end of a long drought. I would like to hear what bear biologists and other bear experts have to say about this situation.

What is missing from every interview with Takayama that I've read so far is any explanation as to why he refused the help of Julia Di Sieno, the Executive Director of Animal Rescue Team, who was on the phone with the officials on the scene several times that day. She offered the services of her veterinarian, a large secure trailer, and other services at no cost, to save the bear’s life.

The public has a right to know the reasons that were given for not working with her, and whether or not these reasons were valid.

Mr. Takayama also neglects to mention the fact that after the sun came up on Saturday morning it was never quiet enough for the bear to come down.

Police were trying to keep the bear up the tree during the day. Numerous people have stated their concern over the zoo like atmosphere before the streets were finally cordoned off around midday.

I was there from 6 pm until Fish & Game left after 11pm. Cars were driving up to area that was blocked from traffic and shining headlights toward the tree. People with dogs were in the area. Party music going on nearby, police car engines were left running, cell phones, sirens on Ojai Avenue, and a multitude of other Saturday night noises.

Bears are known to have the most powerful sense of smell of any animal on earth. The average dog’s sense of smell is 100 times better than a humans. A blood hound’s is 300 times better. A bear’s sense of smell is 7 times better than a blood hound’s or 2,100 times better than a human!

I'm sure the bear was aware of all the humans and dogs in the area.

I was originally told by police that the plan was to wait till around 2 am. I was standing next to the police when the call came sometime before 10 pm that plans were changed. DFG wardens had gotten the call from Mr. Takayama not to wait any longer, even though the area was never quiet enough for the bear to come down.

We were told to stay away because if the bear came down and people were in the area they would have to shoot it. I did not know what to think when I saw flashlights shining up into the tree, which we were later told caused the frightened bear to climb even higher. Shortly after seeing the flashlights I heard the sound of branches breaking as the bear crashed to the ground.

A considerable financial investment had been made to save the bear, but the window of time (late Saturday night--early Sunday morning) when that investment might have paid off, was not observed.

posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/05/09 @ 01:33 p.m.

This is a test. My previous Comment disappeared.

posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/05/09 @ 01:38 p.m.

Out of all the government agencies in the USA, the Fish and Wildlife division is the most incompetent and dumbest bunch. They are supposed to protect wildlife but they are all indoctrinated with the idea that killing wildlife is the only solution to any problem. This is because they all have the "kill mentality". The death of this harmless bear is a definite tragedy and all of the USFWS agents involved in this stupidity should lose their jobs. They are not fit to serve.

posted by BJR36JRG on 11/05/09 @ 02:26 p.m.

I was told that with the previous California Department of Fish and Game warden, Morgan Wehtje (a biologist and not a hunter), things were different. I would like to know if figures are available as to how many bears were killed on her watch (so far I have heard of only one) as compared to Roland Takayama (figuring in the number of years and other considerations.)

posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/05/09 @ 02:46 p.m.

City people who know nothing about wild animals--are life threatening dangers to self, others, and the community. Any treed bear at any time can come down a tree instantaneously. Had any in the crowd practiced basic safety--there would have been no bystanders. We can only wonder how many of the unknowledgeable foolishly exposed kids to the danger of the bear. Voyeurs who insist on looking at dead bodies from auto crashes are just oddballs but not in high danger from a dead body resurrecting. The same is untrue of both partially anesthetized or even wounded wild animals. Those voyeurs who insist on pooling around state employees busy trying to deal with any wild animal whether a potentially rabid racoon through bear or cougar -- deserve whatever happens to them. The state workers certainly do not deserve the "animal unknowledgeable" dictating safety or dictating their job duties. There's no excuse for local police or any state workers allowing the public to be endangered by any wild animal. Shame on all animal radicals who promote anything that increases risk to state workers, the public, and particularly children. They need to go home and cuddle their stuffed toy teddy bears--not do dangerous acts or advocate to set policy involving live animals.

posted by Twilighttime on 11/06/09 @ 08:10 a.m.

Twilighttime, you obviously are not well-versed yourself in dealing with wildlife. You make blanket generalizations about wildlife that are not inherently true at all. Sure there are incidences with wild-animals from time to time, particularly with people that just do not think. But to suggest all wildlife are dangerous, deadly and need to be removed, you are grossly incorrect. Talk about an unsustainable solution to increasing wildlife-human interactions as we humans continue to expand our developments into wildlands. If people like you had their way, there would be nothing left to this world than humans, dogs and cows (the first two FAR more deadly so say the statistics, than any common wildlife encounter). Please think beyond your generalizations and consider the health of future generations as well as current that depend on in tact ecosystems to support our future including health and economy. With escalating habitat destruction exacerbated by wildlife persecution, the animals are already losing more than can be afforded. The significance goes beyond THIS bear, rather much further--without our environment, and all the services it provides, we have nothing.

posted by Lorie on 11/06/09 @ 09:37 a.m.

Here is what Ann Bryant, executive director of the BEAR League of Lake Tahoe (www.savebears.org) has to say about bears.

"The beautiful but unfortunate bear who inadvertently ventured into Ojai recently should most certainly still be alive today and would be were it not for the inappropriate and woefully disturbing actions of a governmental agency --the Department of Fish and Game -- that answers to no one and blatantly disregards its own mission to protect California's wildlife.

In Tahoe, a bear in a tree in a neighborhood is an everyday occurrence. Everyone here knows exactly what to do . . . clear the area, bring dogs inside, make sure the bear has a clear path of escape and let him come down when he feels safe. If a bear happens to go up a tree near a school or a busy road or any place where he may need assistance, the BEAR League is called (not the Department of Fish and Game) and we monitor the outcome so as to ensure public safety and to escort the bear back to an appropriate wooded area.

We do this on a daily basis and no one ever overreacts, law enforcement helps us if we need them, and it's simply no big deal.

In literally thousands of cases of "bears in trees," we have never had to even think about using tranquilizers, we've never had a bear or a human being injured, and the bear is normally so relieved to be back in his own woodland territory that he is most reluctant to come into "Peopleville" ever again.

A bear in a tree is a sign of submission and fear, not of aggression or "something being wrong." The so-called experts (DFG) have no clue how to read bears and should have taken advantage of offers of help from numerous people who do. We would have been honored to assist, and have in many cases just like this, from all over the country . . . always with happy endings.

My hope is for everyone to realize these animals are not vicious man-eating monsters (not a single person has ever, in all of recorded history, been killed by a black bear in all of California, Nevada or Oregon). I hope also that communities will call on legitimate experts when they aren't sure how to handle a situation like this instead of relying on unqualified incompetents whose only concern is for hunters."

To read all of Ann's articles visit the web site of the Bear League at www.savebears.org . The Bear League is grassroots volunteer non profit group in the Lake Tahoe Basin, who, on a routine basis deal with getting black bears out of neighborhoods, trees, houses, crawl spaces under houses, even nursery school playgrounds, without anyone getting hurt including the bears.

posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/06/09 @ 01:00 p.m.

A correction to the article.

The third paragraph from the end states: The Ojai Wildlife League is aiming to procure such a plan. In the meantime, Ojai residents continue to commemorate the deceased animal through an online presence (ojaiwildlife.org).

The correct website is ojaiwildlifeleague.com



posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/08/09 @ 10:23 a.m.

Thank you for making the above correction.

posted by SuzaFrancina on 11/09/09 @ 01:56 p.m.
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