Burger bash for a bear-y good cause

Josh, a 14-year-old black bear who's lived his entire life around adoring humans in South Florida, will be relying on the warm generosity of his fans during a fundraiser at Beef 'O' Brady's in Cooper City.

The sports pub is hosting a Burgers for the Bear benefit, with 15 percent of all patties sold going toward the ongoing construction of an outsize bear habitat at Davie's Flamingo Gardens.

The wildlife sanctuary's animal care director, Mike Ruggieri, says the new 40-by-70-foot structure should have "plenty of leg room" for a 6 1/2-foot-tall omnivore, who charmed folks at circuses in Homestead and later entertained kids at local birthday parties.

"Josh really likes people. He wasn't raised with other bears. He doesn't even know what other bears are like," Ruggieri says. "The guy is like a big bump on a log. We're really hoping he'll take to his fans here. I'm looking forward to bonding with him again."


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Once completed, Josh's new home will include a 3-foot-deep manmade pond with live fish, a manmade cave hand-carved from cap rock, artificial hills and wooden logs to push around as recreational toys. His diet? Well, he's fond of strawberries, grapes, applesauce and a frozen bowl of Kool-Aid, to be lapped up as the sugary drink defrosts.

He met Josh four years ago, when a friend told Ruggieri the bear was touring with animal sanctuary Vanishing Species. Josh was withdrawn at first, he says, but eventually bonded with the wildlife expert.

"He used to protrude his lips through the cage and let me rub the bottom of his front lips," Ruggieri recalls, with a chuckle. "That was when I realized, 'Oh, God, he's accepting me.'"

Josh the Bear is staying with the Okeechobee sanctuary Animal Adventures Inc., until the habitat is finished in June, Ruggieri says. Under regulations, it must be secured with shock wire and a ceiling to prevent escape, he added.

Josh's unusually docile temperament and likability has since last year inspired several donations from private and public donors, including Fort Lauderdale's Pet Paradise Resort. Keith Clark, Flamingo Garden's managing director, says the wildlife sanctuary is about $18,000 shy of the habitat's $140,000 construction cost.

"Lots of people are getting excited for Josh. Who doesn't love a bear?" Clark says. "Bears brings back that idea of your teddy bear, or memories of 'Gentle Ben,' that old TV show filmed in the Everglades. I'm probably dating myself with that reference...

"Now he's coming back to this super-large exhibit to live out the rest of his years in retirement."

If you go

What: Burgers for the Bear

When: 5-8 p.m. today

Where: Beef 'O' Brady's, 8655 Stirling Road, Cooper City

Cost: Free, with 15 percent of bill benefiting Josh the Bear

Contact: 954-689-4747, FlamingoGardens.org/events.html