Twice-Told Animal Tales : Amorous Frasier Added Zest to the '70s; Pelican Mutilators Brought Death to '80s

Times Staff Writer

Orange County has had its share of animal tales over the years: a walking catfish named Schwartz; an aged African lion named Frasier, who made love instead of war; a hippopotamus named Bubbles, who died in what some insisted was a struggle for women's rights.

But those tales, the usually benign and amusing ones that can nevertheless arouse strong passions, occurred in the '70s.

In the '80s, animal stories in the county seem to have taken a nasty turn.

The county's mountain lions, coyotes and pelicans have been the central characters in recent years, starring in tales that have attracted wide, sometimes national attention--all of it ugly: Cougars have attacked children; coyotes have bitten and frightened people, two dozen pelicans had their beaks hacked off and subsequently died.

Why the change? Peter Dixon, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Irvine, had a ready explanation for the change: "Human interests are turning more toward the macabre, rather than the pleasant and humorous sides of life. Also, there are too many people and too little space."

The 1970s got off to a hot start with Schwartz, a typical walking catfish, albino with red eyes. Unfortunately for Schwartz, this tale had a chilly ending.

When the Marine captain owner of the fish was sent to Vietnam, he left Catfish Schwartz with the owners of the Sandpiper Lounge in Laguna Beach, a favorite hangout for Marines from El Toro and Camp Pendleton.

The bar had a fish aquarium with several tame inhabitants. Schwartz was plopped in with them, living happily until the day a state Department of Fish and Game warden came in, dipped him out with a net, took him away and froze him to be used as evidence.

The warden cited one of the bar's owners, Tom Auble, for possessing a prohibited species. The state code prohibiting possession of a walking catfish is similar to ones in Georgia and Florida, where the fish, imported from Asia, used their viciousness and their ability to stay out of water for 15-20 minutes, walk overland from creek to creek and breed rapidly to maraud native fish populations.

So, the warden froze Schwartz to be used as evidence, and the bar's Marine patrons took on three tasks: raising bond money for Auble (the late actor Lee Marvin, a former Marine, was a donor), planning a funeral service for Schwartz and trying to find out who had tipped off the game warden about his being at the bar.

They succeeded in everything but finding the fink, which everyone agreed was a good thing, considering that Marines are taught how to hurt people.

"Schwartz may have been legally a dangerous fish," said another bartender at the Sandpiper, "but he never ate any of the goldfish in the tank, and he never did any walking around here. "

With the funds raised at the Sandpiper, Auble posted bond, then forfeited it. There was no trial, and the frozen Schwartz was never needed as evidence.

Then, about two years later, the legend of Frasier, an African lion at the now-defunct Lion Country Safari animal park in Irvine, began to unfold.

Park officials figured Frasier was about 20 years old, the equivalent of 80 in human years. The six females that became his pride had already beaten up and chased out two husky young males because they didn't live up to expectations and showed tendencies to fight and argue.

Then along came Frasier. He was such a sad, tottery creature that two females had to walk on each side to prop him up when he tried to move around. Others brought him his food. He was gentle and not at all scrappy. In 18 months, his mates gave birth to 35 cubs.

Frasier became known around the world. Fan clubs were formed in distant cities; T-shirts were sold. Women wrote to Lion Country to find out what the lion was fed so they could give their husbands the same menu; young men lost their fear of growing old, and old men, as one wrote to The Times, felt that Frasier "demolished the legend" that age meant the end of pleasure.

Well, Frasier finally died in July, 1972, and they buried him on a hillside above the park, which now is known as Wild Rivers at Lion Country in Irvine. His little cross still is there.

But before he was laid to rest, an autopsy was held, the results of which refuted earlier guesses that he had died of general deterioration of internal organs because of age. In fact, all his organs were found to be in splendid shape--kidneys, prostate, liver, heart and all.

Dr. A.W. Orlandella, a South Laguna urologist and spokesman for the autopsy team, said simply: "I feel he loved himself to death."

The official conclusion was that pneumonia was the cause, but almost anyone can die that way.

Lion Country, before giving up as strictly a wild animal park and converting to the Wild Rivers theme, had one final fling at world renown when a two-ton hippopotamus named Bubbles and her 800-pound, unnamed daughter crashed out of the compound in February, 1978.

The pair were recaptured quickly, only to break out again, this time returning of their own volition. Bubbles then was isolated in a concrete pen, but, as a park spokeswoman rather incongruously put it, she "scaled" a 4 1/2-foot wall, battered through an outer chain-link fence and was gone.

There were foggy nights and rain, but Lion Country rangers kept track of Bubbles in the hills until, after a few days, she found a little lake alongside Laguna Canyon Road about two miles from the park.

By that time, she was already famous as a symbol of women's liberation: a lone female creature seeking to do her own thing, day after day outwitting scores of men.

The attempts to capture her often bordered on the ludicrous.

Cargo nets were rigged from two wooden power poles set up near the pond and baited with bales of hay; jeeps were hooked to ropes attached to the nets, ready to close the trap. Bubbles came out of her pond, studied the situation and went back to the water.

Rangers were armed with guns to fire tranquilizer darts into her huge body, but they had to be sure she was far enough away from the pond when shot that she wouldn't drown if the drugs took effect when she was in the water.

At one point, Marines were asked to donate men and heavy equipment to drive her from her pool. They refused on the ground that it was beyond their realm of duty.

Private bulldozers were hired, but they got stuck in the mud; helicopters battered the water with blasts from their rotor blades. Bubbles ignored them.

During her 19 days of freedom, a public phenomenon called "hippomania" flourished. At the insistence of an animal welfare group, a judge ordered that she not be deliberately shot to death unless human life was threatened; in Van Nuys, children wanted their school renamed for her; some groups wanted a statue erected near the pond, and Bubbles often was touted as a symbol for the women's liberation movement. And, of course, there were T-shirts.

On a Friday night in early March, Bubbles came out of her pond to forage on green grass on a little slope about 150 yards away. A ranger fired two tranquilizer darts. After a few minutes, Bubbles collapsed, falling awkwardly on the slope, legs tangled in a small, shrub-like tree, head down.

A skiploader, trying to reach her to roll her into a position where she could breathe, bogged down in a small, rain-created gully. Bubbles died of what was called "respiratory embarrassment," or the inability to breathe properly in the head-down position. The same post-mortem examination showed that she was four months pregnant.

Her death made two-inch headlines in some newspapers--overriding a story about Arab guerrillas inflicting heavy casualties on a busload of Israelis in Tel Aviv that Friday.

The Times received from readers 116 letters about Bubbles; 13 were printed in two columns on the editorial pages. Without exception, those 13 writers deplored what one called the "tragicomic" saga of the hippo and the way the capture attempt was handled.

The Bubbles affair did end tragically, but it had its light moments, and fit in, to some extent, with the other animal stories of the 1970s.

Not as well, however, as the odyssey of the osprey, a seagoing hawk, that in late '78 built a huge nest of twigs atop the foremast of a schooner moored offshore in Newport Harbor.

The nest was costing the boat's owner, a Los Angeles doctor, an estimated $1,500 a month, taking into account the cost of a shoreside slip (where the doctor hoped to ready the vessel for sale) and his payments on the boat.

"I couldn't move the boat to the shoreside slip or even take it for a pleasure sail," he said.

The reason being, Department of Fish and Game biologists said, that there hadn't been a successful osprey nesting on the county's coast since 1912, and they wanted to give the female nest-builder a chance to attract a mate.

The biologists recognized the doctor's problem, however, so with federal, county and city approval, a wooden power pole was set in the water near the schooner, and a biologist went up in a hydraulic aerial platform from the deck of a harbor ferryboat and transplanted the nest from the mast to the pole.

"But the osprey didn't show up," said Capt. Harry Gage, harbor master, "and two years ago, the pole fell over. It didn't hit anything on the way down."

The first of the really bad animal stories of the 1980s started in October, 1982, when Department of Fish and Game wardens began recovering brown pelicans with their upper beaks hacked part or all the way off.

Most of the incidents occurred around Dana Point. Before the mutilations tapered off and ended sometime the next month, at least 25 of the big, graceful birds had been tortured. All eventually died, despite efforts by veterinarians to treat them.

The theory was that some renegade fisherman, angered when the birds stole his bait or got tangled in his lines, used a hacksaw or a heavy knife to mutilate their beaks. Established commercial fishermen were as angry about the cruelties as anyone and kept a lookout for the offender.

Despite offers of rewards and special patrols by wardens, no one has ever been arrested. No T-shirts or fan clubs here.

In several parts of the county, most notably San Clemente, residents of new housing developments that were pushing into the fringes of the back country came face to face with coyotes.

In one San Clemente neighborhood in August, 1983, two children were bitten, one seriously. In other parts of town, house cats and small dogs disappeared, and coyotes were sighted by the dozens in backyards and on streets not far from City Hall.

Special police sharpshooter squads were organized, later replaced by a licensed commercial hunter. It is estimated that more than a score of the animals were slaughtered during the period ending last year.

Apparently, the drastic measures worked. Coyotes are known to be smart enough to recognize danger and avoid it, so apparently they stayed away. Police Lt. Steve Bernardi said recently that citizen sightings of coyotes had dropped to almost zero, and there had been no more attacks by the animals, but that it is possible some pet cats have been taken.

In March, 1986, the mountain lion problem burst into the news when a 5-year-old girl, hiking with her family in Ronald W. Caspers Wilderness Park just east of San Juan Capistrano, was mauled and suffered permanent injuries.

Hunters stalked and killed a puma believed to have been responsible for the attack.

Seven months later, in October, a 6-year-old boy was less seriously injured in a similar attack at the same park. Later that year, cougars were sighted close to camping areas in O'Neill Regional Park, about four miles northwest of Caspers.

After each attack at Caspers, the park was closed to the public for several weeks at a time, and similar precautions were taken at O'Neill. Both parks now are open, but only on a limited-use basis. Some overnight camping sites are closed. Campers must have at least one companion, and children must be accompanied by adults and cannot use certain trails or camp sites.

Because of continued sightings of pumas, the county Board of Supervisors last September approved a $154,000, two-year study to determine the size and range of the mountain lion population in the county.

As part of the study, scientists and professional trackers have captured three cougars and fitted them with collars attached to radio transmitters so their movements can be followed. An effort is being made to similarly equip at least 10 more panthers in coming months.

Earl Lauppe, regional wildlife management supervisor for the Department of Fish and Game, said it is hoped that through these events and the study the county's growing population "we'll get a better understanding of the (wildlife) resources, and thus be able to cope as developments push into the back country."

Not all encounters with cougars, while potentially lethal, have been entirely without humor, as in the incident last August at O'Neill Park when a full-grown mountain lion roamed into a restroom already occupied by a young woman camper.

"The lady used her head," supervising Ranger Richard Dyer said. "She crawled up on top of the partition of the stall she was in and kept quiet until the cat went away."

Nevertheless, the animal stories of the '70s were more pleasant in many ways, including an incident aboard a boat off the San Clemente Pier.

In May, 1977, passengers on the sportfishing boat Sum Fun, out of Dana Point, thought one of their number had hooked a sea lion or a cormorant. When they got it in, after an unusually tough struggle, they discovered that it was a penguin, later identified by experts as a Humboldt penguin who was supposed to be 5,000 miles south of the county in the cold waters of the Humboldt Current.

The only logical guess as to how it got to Orange County was that it had jumped off a ship coming from South America, but no one ever really knew what the story was.

The Sum Fun passengers named him Petey, and he was donated to Sea World in San Diego.

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