It's the Pits : Even So, Tourists by the Thousands Say They Love It

TIMES STAFF WRITER

After traveling 2,000 miles for a summer vacation in Los Angeles, Cathie and Connie Paulsen knew how the saber-toothed tiger must have felt 10,000 years ago.

Stuck at the La Brea Tar Pits.

The 18-year-old twins from Cottage Grove, Minn., were waiting impatiently outside the George C. Page Museum for relatives to finish inspecting one of the world's largest collections of fossils. Nearby, methane gas bubbled out of a pond and sticky black asphalt oozed from the grassy lawn.

"This is boring. We're here because we have a cousin who's interested in dinosaurs. He's 5," Cathie shrugged. Said Connie: "Shopping is our idea of a good time. This is the pits."

Thousands of others visiting Los Angeles this summer disagree.

They say nothing can top the spectacle of oil bubbling out of the ground in the middle of one of the country's largest cities, next to one of the world's most famous streets, spitting out some of North America's oldest bones.

Outside the $4-million paleontology museum, visitors can step to the edge of a black, 13-foot-deep hole called Pit 91 and watch experts dig for Ice Age fossils of such creatures as bison, pronghorn antelope and an ancestor of the California condor.

"I asked to come here," said Megan Holtzclaw, 15, who traveled from Houston with her family. "I've wanted to come here ever since I learned about this place in science class."

Megan was straining to lift a lever on a museum exhibit that demonstrates how difficult it is for animals to escape from the gooey tar pits. David Babani, 12, of London was tugging on a lever next to her.

"I find this very interesting. We did a study on this in school," said David, who is visiting America with two friends, Benjamin and Kimberley Simone, who are 10 and 7. Their father, David Simone, is a Beverly Hills record executive.

Dallas lawyer Peter Lesser said he, too, has wanted to visit the La Brea Tar Pits since he was a schoolboy. He brought his wife, Dr. Sheila Calderon, and nieces Sarabeth and Rebeca-Ann Weinstock, 15 and 11, from Orlando.

"I remember reading about this as a kid. I can still remember seeing a picture of the saber-toothed tiger struggling in the tar," Lesser told the two girls, adding: "Of course, I hear Disney is building a tar pit attraction in Orlando."

Los Angeles County operates the La Brea Tar Pits and Page Museum in conjunction with its Natural History Museum at Exposition Park. Together, the two museums attract about 1.4 million visitors a year.

Despite its name, the "tar" in the tar pits in the 5800 block of Wilshire Boulevard is actually crude oil that has seeped from underground fissures and been turned into asphalt by ground-level evaporation.

Over the ages, animals were trapped when leaves and dust camouflaged the asphalt puddles and then the creatures stepped into them. When predators such as ancient lions and wolves moved in to dine on the trapped animals, they also became stuck. About 90 years of excavation have turned up nearly 3 million fossils, according to county officials.

Only one human skeleton has been found, however. It is that of a 25-year-old woman who died 9,000 years ago. Her fossilized bones are displayed in the museum next to a sign that explains she was Los Angeles' first known murder victim--killed by a "severe blow to the head with a blunt object, possibly a grinding stone."

Chain-link encircles each of the individual tar pits.

"If we didn't have the fences out there, we'd catch a drunk a night," said Barbara Parkhurst, a museum executive who is in charge of the tar pits' 60 volunteer excavators and tour guides.

Guides such as Roscoe Schaffert, a retired Downey biochemist, nonetheless warn visitors to watch where they are stepping. He leads some of the free outdoor tours that are conducted at 1 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays.

"Sometimes there are surges and that stuff comes oozing out when you never know it's going to happen," he said.

Schaffert led a group of 25 visitors to a 40-foot-deep tar pit where the remains of 16 ancient imperial mammoths have been uncovered. The 10-ton animals resemble modern-day Indian elephants; they are the largest animals to be trapped in the La Brea Tar Pits.

No dinosaurs have been found, Schaffert said. They disappeared from Earth about 65 million years before animals began getting trapped along what is now called the Wilshire Miracle Mile District.

"I'm surprised there's this much oil history out here," said tourist Edward Edinger, a land-use planner in Titusville, Pa. "We live where oil was discovered in 1859. But we have to go down for it--it doesn't come up out of the ground on its own in Titusville."

Tourist Debbie Barnes, a teacher from Hutchinson, Kan., winced at an artifact stuck in the bubbling black goo. It was a beer can.

"In another 1,000 years that's what they're going to find from our civilization," Barnes said.

"It bothers me. I'd like to jump over the fence and pull it out. But then I don't want to be the next animal specimen they find in there."

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