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.”