Ramon Garza Elementary School students had a memorable last day of school.
A young black bear galloped through campus Thursday morning, interrupting the adjacent Sierra Middle School graduation ceremony where students, parents and guests watched in awe. The 100- to 125-pound male bear was later captured at a nearby apartment complex after about a 10-minute struggle with animal control and sheriff’s officers. Nobody was hurt.
“It was just weird because, I mean, there was a bear by the school,” said seventh-grader Anthony Gutierrez, who spotted the bear through a window and stopped to watch it.
Friend Alex Rosales said it was “awesome,” explaining “I’ve never seen a bear for real like that.”
Indeed, it’s not often bears need to be relocated in Kern County. Andrew Halverson, a game warden with the state’s Department of Fish and Game, said it happens maybe once or twice every couple of years.
Nick Cullen, a shelter supervisor at Kern County Animal Control, said he’s never seen a bear in the city in the seven years he’s worked there.
A Bakersfield City School District assistant superintendent said he was shocked the bear made it to Center Street in urban east Bakersfield.
“Somewhere where there are mountains and wooded areas makes sense, but here? I really don’t have an answer,” said Al Capilla, who’d been handing out diplomas.
Halverson speculated that with the lack of rain this season, the bear might have followed the Kern River down into areas inhabited by people looking to quench its thirst. A school would be an attractive place to forage for something to eat and drink, with lots of food and trash bins around, Halverson said.
Later as the captured bear awaited release to the wild, it drank eagerly from a hose.
“It was pretty thirsty,” Halverson said.
How it unfolded
Ramon Garza Principal Teresa Arambula said she was in the main office at about 9:30 a.m. when she was alerted by two parents about the bear outside the front of the school. She immediately placed the campus on lockdown. The only students outside at the time were fifth-graders, who were quickly taken inside.
“The only thing I was thinking about was keeping my students safe,” she said.
Sierra Principal Tomas Prieto said no one was in any immediate danger.
“When the bear was in the area my security staff already had everybody on the alarm and followed the bear at a safe distance,” he said.
The bear, described by Prieto as “small” and “teenage,” then headed south across campus and jumped the fence of nearby Edison Village Apartments on Pioneer Drive, according to apartment manager Alma Torres.
She said she didn’t believe what was happening until Julian Zeliaya, one of Edison Village’s maintenence men, told her the bear approached him on its hind legs.
Kern County Animal Control and Kern County Sheriff’s Department officials arrived at the apartments within moments and searched the complex, which consists of three floors with open-air corridors and a central park with playground equipment. The bear was soon cornered by apartments 116 and 117.
“It all happened really fast,” Torres said.
A video shot by KGET Channel 17 shows officers struggling with the bear as it rolled around hallways in the apartment complex. At one point it got caught in a storage closet; it appeared to even flip over.
Animal Control officers and Kern County sheriff’s deputies used a Taser several times to subdue the bear before capturing it with a control pole. The bear was “snarling and growling” during the roughly 10-minute capture, KGET reported.
Officials drove the bear from the apartments to the Kern County Animal Control facility on South Mt. Vernon Avenue.
"We were looking around for a safe place where we could keep a bear and quickly realized we didn't have anything,” Cullen said.
So it stayed in the truck until it was released into the wild somewhere in Kern County. Officials declined to say precisely where.
The bear caused quite a stir at the middle school graduation.
In the middle of the ceremony, people began to notice the bear climbing a fence near the elementary school. Guests and students began snapping photos.
The ceremony was halted in the middle of reading grad’s names, with three students on the stage at the time, said Capilla, the assistant superintendent.
He told surrounding staff to alert the elementary school, where unbeknownst to him, the school already knew about the bear and had gone on lockdown.
“There were no kids in the area; otherwise, I would have stopped and ran over to the school,” Capilla said.
Several parents at the elementary school called the intrusion “crazy,” while students stood in groups talking excitedly and comparing pictures hastily snapped on their cell phones.
Over at the apartments, some noticed the bear, others didn’t.
While Joe Quijas heard a commotion, he didn’t think anything of it.
“I heard footsteps, but I figured it was kids,” he said. “School is out and little kids run around.”
— Californian staff writers Courtenay Edelhart, Jason Kotowski and Jorge Barrientos contributed to this report.