No. 29 in a series of 52 commemorating the 100-year anniversary of The Signal
Yes. Mountain lions. Pumas. Catamounts. Cougars. American panthers. As Theodore Roosevelt called them, “…the lord of stealthy murder,” and Teddy used to hunt them up here in Acton and Canyon Country.
From rare time to time, in this 21st century, we have run a story about a big cat spotted wandering into a neighborhood or backyard. Today, Santa Clarita is one of the safest cities in America, from both crime and cougs.
But for most of this newspaper’s 100-year history, mountain lions were in the news, sometimes almost every week.
We were a tiny populated farming and ranching community. Wilderness was not a day’s drive away — it was next door. And we had lots and lots of mountain lions for neighbors. Mostly, we got the mountain lion. Rarely, the mountain lion would get us, but never fatally. Cougars don’t like being around humans.
I absolutely adore the official position of the city of Santa Clarita on mountain lion encounters:
“Dialing 911 from your cellphone will direct you to the CHP. It is the SCV Sheriff’s Station that will assist during an animal attack.”
I have trouble with the vagueness.
Is the Sheriff’s Station going to assist you or the mountain lion?
After 60 years of living here, I’ve never seen a mountain lion in the wild. Several years ago, in Sand Canyon, I came home to find all these notices being posted by Fish & Game, warning us to be careful because a cougar had been spotted in the neighborhood. I had to ask one of the field & stream cops just exactly where this mountain screamer had been spotted.
“Right there on your front lawn,” said the officer.
The Mighty Signal noted in 1960 that there were a scant 600 cougars left — in the entire state of California. Nearly 70 years later, that number has swelled to an estimated 6,000. Just last year, California’s Fish & Wildlife agency started a — for you overly sensitive folks, please excuse the word — census.
We do know that since 2017, 16 cougars have been killed crossing highways. That number may be higher because the agency said not all accidents have been reported, although how they’d know that is beyond my statistical abilities.
The Signal reported Frank Tapia shooting a behemoth of a mountain lion over in Bull Canyon (that’s down from Oat Mountain). The creature was reported to be more than 9 feet in length and weighed more than 300 pounds.
Today, we would write more of a “poor kitty” editorial on the cat’s demise. Times were different back in the 1920s.
Signal Editor Thornton Doelle noted: “Mountain lions are the most terrible menace that deer have to cope with and every one eliminated from the hills is a good deed done.”
I wonder if old Thornton (besides being editor, he was a full-time forest ranger) picked up on the irony of his juxtapositioning of stories.
After calling for the extermination of all pumas in their lead story, The Mighty Signal ran another story right next to it.
Topic? Local farmers were complaining that there were too many deer in the area, eating valuable pasture. Some deer were even raiding vegetable gardens and grain silos. Guess no one bothered to do the math about cougars eating deer.
Get this. Rough Signal estimates from a November 1923 Signal article noted that there was at least one mountain lion for every canyon in the valley. And amen boy howdy, we have lots and lots and lots of canyons.
During the Depression, hunting mountain lions could bring in enough money to eat for a couple of months. Bounties were $25 a head, $60 and sometimes more for females. Hunters would think nothing of bashing in the heads of a litter of cubs. A 1930 Signal story noted how local hunter, Andrew Freeman, killed 18 mountain lions that calendar year.
In 1931, this august periodical noted how Gene Holder had himself a Daniel Boone moment. Holder, working on a federal survey, did more than survey. He went mountain lion hunting. Treeing the big cat, Holder took aim, slipped, fired and wounded the puma. It pounced from the tree and landed right on top of the Saugus biologist. He and the cougar had a terrific barroom brawl without the barroom, and Holder ended up killing the cat with his hunting knife. Then, Holder had to drive himself several miles to get medical treatment for his 10,000 bites, cuts, gouges, scratches and missing skin.
A male cougar can weigh more than most of us. They get up to 175 pounds with the females running 70-125 pounds.
Check. This. Out.
In a single bound, a mountain lion can cover 45 feet. It can spring up to a ledge 20 feet high. The big cats dine on rabbits, varmints, squirrels and deer. On average, they’ll consume one deer per week and, sometimes, they’ll partake of an appetizer of Felix or an aperitif of backyard Fido.
Speaking of Fido, we ran an interesting story from 1941 about a supposed marauding cougar. It was credited with raiding the Kasabian Ranch in Canyon Country and dining on 18 sheep.
Captain Marty, who ran the local sheriff’s station when it was on 6th Street, dusted off some old puma traps from his garage and baited them with a sheep carcass — a pastime rare in current suburban climes.
Marty walked his trap lines a few days later and found all of them had been sprung. The clever predator had dragged another sheep across the trap to spring them. I know people who shop at Home Depot who aren’t as smart.
Captain Marty added a few more traps, this time being a bit more cagey — no pun intended — in their placement.
Next morning, he found three of the traps sprung and in the fourth, snarling furiously, was a giant Airedale dog.
The Signal solemnly noted that the mutton-eating pooch was summarily executed on the spot without trial or jury of its peers.
You’re more likely to die in a car accident or be struck by lightning than killed by a mountain lion. But. Are those odds shrinking?
As the borders blur between nature and suburbia, some feel that mountain lions are losing their shyness around us.
Some interesting numbers: The Signal noted that the first recorded killing of a human by a cougar in California was in 1890.
A small boy was taken by two Cougars up in Siskiyou County. Some 18 years went by without a fatality. In 1909, a woman and her child were killed by a rabid panther up in Santa Clara County. Then, 76 years went by before another human fatality or even a reported attack.
In 1994, distance runner Barbara Schoener was attacked and killed by a cougar. Trying to piece together what happened, authorities feel the 40-year-old woman was on a well-used trail — again, way up in Northern California — when she ran under a ledge where a mountain lion was waiting. The big cat supposedly pounced and the poor woman became the fourth fatality in state history.
Another woman, a hiker, was killed in the early-morning hours as she walked alone in Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. That was the same year as Mrs. Schoener’s death.
We made it through 11 years with only one reported attack in the state. Then, a few years ago, we noted that a 35-year-old amateur mountain bike racer was killed by a big cat in southern Orange County. It was the strangest attack in state history because the same cougar attacked another mountain biker, a woman.
Fortunately, she was rescued by two other male bikers who were eventually able to drive off the cat by pelting it with rocks.
Eventually, it was hunted down and killed. Remains of the first cyclist’s body were found in the cat’s stomach.
For most of the 20th century, mountain lion attacks on humans were almost nonexistent. During the 1980s, in Canada and the U.S., there were 20 reported attacks and two deaths. In the 1990s, 37 attacks and eight deaths.
Maybe the mountain lions are getting their revenge.
The Signal noted that back in the late 19th century, John Powell, big game hunter, jurist and Civil War veteran who led troops in seven major battles for the North, bagged a rare white wolf in Bouquet Canyon. He made a rug out of the poor creature and sold it for $125.
Powell also made the record books, shooting perhaps the king of all mountain lions — right here in Canyon Country.
Granted, it was an aging male with loose teeth.
But Powell’s big cat measured 12 feet, 6 inches from nose to tip of its tail.
Another giant was taken by Assistant Fire Warden Peter Dairies in October 1926. The Signal recounted how Pete bagged a 250-pound male monster north of Castaic. More than 8 feet long from nose to tail. The big cougar charged Dairies from about 50 yards away, was shot, got up, charged again and this time, was fatally clipped. The puma was credited with supplementing his venison diet by supping on several Castaic steers.
We’ve had several people stalked around the valley over the years, including a group of kids in Sand Canyon. In 1942, they reported seeing twin black panthers at their bus stop.
Interestingly, the SCV has had more than its fair share of black panthers.
Back in 1926, John Hossack was putting a new roof on his Bouquet Canyon home and took a moment to take in the beauty of spring. He almost fell off the roof. Seems a pure black mountain lion, estimated to be about 7 feet long, was sitting nearby, acting as sidewalk supervisor. Hossack didn’t come down from the roof for a while, although we doubt if he’s still up there.
In October 1955, we reported how a pure black mountain lion was reported spotted in Railroad Canyon, by Hart Park. Two residents and some rail-yard workers offered the reports on different times. Don’t need to worry. That cougar’d have to be about at least 65 years old by now.
Hart Park had a Christmas visitor in 1985 — a 200-pound black puma. Using everything from helicopters to hunting dogs, a dozen officers from various agencies prowled the Newhall grounds, searching for the elusive big cat. Earlier in the week, the carcass of a deer was found on one of the trails and a woman nearly had an out-of-body experience when she saw the mountain lion vault from out of a tree and up a hill in front of her while she was walking.
In December 1930, we noted another rude awakening.
Carlton Thompson woke at 2:30 in the morning. We were having one of those not-uncommon December heat waves, and Thompson was sleeping on his front porch in the middle of Newhall. He awoke to hear panting, which he thought was from the neighbor’s German shepherd.
Thompson whistled to call what he thought was his pal puppy and was rather startled to find it was a mountain lion. The puma roared, then took off for parts unknown.
That’ll get the blood pumping.
Life’s a little easier, too, for Southern California Edison workers. Back in 1926, F.A. O’Brien was reportedly attacked while working with his mules, building a utility road along the old Ridge Route. SCE guys carried guns then, for good reason. O’Brien shot the 6-foot-long puma as it stalked either him, the mules or both.
In May of 1936, The Signal noted the score was Cougar, 6, Dogs, 0. A Van Nuys man brought up a half-dozen special hunting dogs to go find pumas up Acton way. The unnamed outdoorsman let loose the hounds near the old Sterling borax community. All six of the hounds fell to their death when they tumbled into an abandoned mine shaft.
We probably should end on a sunny note, one where neither fauna nor human is mauled.
Over the years, the Saugus train depot had a lot of unusual cargo dropped off. On May 23, 1944, we reported how Pat Woods was notified there was an extremely urgent package from Washington state waiting for him. It was a chicken wire cage with four mountain lion cubs and a note: “Please feed the cougars warm milk out of a nursing bottle until owner arrives.” The wife of the station manager said she’d warm the milk bottle up, but “would be darned if she would feed the baby mountain lions.”
Speaking of feeding lions, perhaps my old friend, “Dogpound” Jerry White, had the best advice.
Jerry used to run the Castaic Animal Shelter.
In a 1996 Signal interview, Dogpound suggested sending our kids to school with two lunches.
The first one was for the kid.
The second was a bag of Kentucky Fried Chicken you casually dropped and calmly walk away as the mountain lion approached you.
Starting in the 1960s, off-and-on, John Boston has worked for The Signal for nearly 40 years. He’s the local historian, author and columnist for The Mighty Signal. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 30 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.