June 21, 1982 12:00 PM

Once upon a time there were four bears in Eureka, Calif.’s Sequoia Park Zoo: Mama Bear, Papa Bear and two baby bears. The people of Eureka loved their bears so much that they raised $25,000 to help replace the old, cramped bear cages with a beautiful new grotto. But one day last month, when Michael Bryant took a 3-year-old friend to the zoo, the girl could not find the furry family. “The bears are gone,” she moaned. “They’re probably just sleeping,” Bryant said. But when he looked at the front page of that day’s Eureka Times-Standard, Bryant found that he was wrong. The bears were gone forever. Because the zoo had nowhere to put the animals while their new home was being built, Mama and Papa Bear were killed; the cubs were rescued and taken to an animal park in Oregon.

Michael Bryant was outraged, and so were hundreds of other animal lovers in the lumber and fishing town of 24,100. Within hours after the bears were bumped off, a Zoo Bear Action Committee was formed to garner more than 5,000 signatures on a petition. They demanded the firing of Eureka City Manager Robert Stockwell and the transfer of Acting Director of Parks and Recreation Ben Adan to another job. Picket signs sprouted outside the zoo, demanding “WHERE DID THE BEARS GO, MOMMY?” and “BEAR MURDERERS MUST PAY!” Famed creature comforter Cleveland Amory, founder of the Fund for Animals, vowed to go to Eureka to protest “the most inhumane animal atrocity of the year.” City officials were forced to make a public apology for “the unfortunate and untimely demise of the bears.” Things got so ugly that Adan and his family fled their house, escaping gunshots, hate mail and phone calls. “They would call and say filthy things against my wife and children,” he complains. “They threatened killings or burning my house, and called me ‘Hitler.’ ”

The city fathers have decided to shift Adan from his zoo job to another post in the park system, but America’s most notorious ursicide still doesn’t understand the fuss. He says that the old bear cages had to be cleared away so a contractor could start work, and the zoo did not want to spend $600 to ship the bears to a Midwest wildlife park that would take them. Adan is no animal hater. When a young Mama Bear arrived at the zoo more than a decade ago, hairless, covered with mites and about to die, it was Adan who nursed her back to health, feeding her vitamins and rubbing her with sheep dip. “I didn’t just get up one morning and decide to shoot the bears because I didn’t like them,” he says. Besides, they were not shot, as rumor had it; they were put to sleep with lethal injections.

“They were euthanized,” he euphemizes. “They weren’t killed.” Still, he concedes: “If I had to do it again, I wouldn’t do the same thing.”

That admission hasn’t stopped the Bear Action Committee from drum-beating. Co-founder Bryant, a bakery owner, wants Stockwell fired. His colleague Eric Love, a pony-tailed holistic health teacher, wants a grand jury investigation. Grace Holton, a part-time legal secretary, says: “We want the best, most humane zoo, not the random slaughterhouse it has been.”

Meanwhile the orphaned 3-month-old cubs are in the Woodland Wildlife Park in Cave Junction, Oreg., eating porridge, goat’s milk and honey. Park owner Bruce Ptolemy, who rescued the bears the morning their parents were killed, says he is considering returning them to the new bear house—with proper guarantees for their safety. “I know there are animal lovers down there,” he says. Back in Eureka, Mayor Fred J. Moore Jr. promises that the enormity will never be repeated. Still, with a politician’s ingenuous gift for finding a silver lining in every cloud, he adds: “I think Eureka’s tourism will be better this season as a result of the bear issue.”

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