Signal History | Part 2: The Mighty Signal and the animal story

In our 100 years of publishing a newspaper, some of our most popular features are stories on animals. My humble opinion, we’re all connected at some level to each other and to animals. Maybe we touch at the soul. Maybe it’s just ancient memories where we shared this Earth with pets, predators and prey.
It’s no secret that I love horses. I was riding way up past Mentryville years ago. It was a cool autumn day. A golden eagle flew a few feet over my head and just slowly coasted in front of us. The bird must have had a 7-foot wingspan. It would rise up to the higher wind currents and, a minute later, would fly back, retracing the same path over and over again. The horse and eagle are both long gone, but I still remember.

Lions and lions and lions, oh my!
Friends of mine living up Acton way in the late 1970s would tell me that the siren was a regular nature’s call as ambulances raced up and down Soledad Canyon Road. That’s where they were filming the most dangerous movie of all time, “Roar.” The producers who re-released it in 2015 had no shame in boasting about the injuries. From a movie poster:

“No animals were harmed in the
making of this movie. 70 members
of the cast and crew were.”

For The Mighty Signal, the injury list was manna from heaven. We may grimace, but, the dark humor of journalism states: “If it bleeds, it leads.” Cinematographer Jan de Bont had the dubious honor of collecting the most stitches — from one attack. De Bont was “nearly” scalped by a 600-pound male African lion and it took 220 stitches to close his head wound. Actress Tippi Hedren, who owned Africa U.S.A. in Acton, had been injured in the Hitchcock film, “The Birds.” In “Roar,” she broke a leg after being thrown by an elephant. Her husband and the movie’s producer/director Noel Marshall, was nearly killed several times. Marshall had so many wounds he contracted gangrene. Hedren’s daughter from a previous marriage, future superstar actress Melanie Griffith, starred in the film at 14. She was nearly ripped to pieces and had to undergo facial reconstruction surgery. They did a great job.
Doron Kauper was the assistant director. Mr. Kauper was mistaken for lunch by a lion and had his throat ripped open, missing the jugular by an inch. Along with nearly having an ear and jaw torn off, Kauper nearly died.
“Roar” died at the box office. I think film critic Hubert Vigilla said it best. He said the production was “dangerous, irresponsible and was a compelling idiotic home movie that happens when naïve, rich people get a bunch of wild animals together in a remote Los Angeles-area mansion.”
Oh. For the record? Tippi Hedren argued with the number of major injuries on the set, noting that it was closer to — are you sitting? — 100 than 70.

“So, Honey. How Was Your Day Lounging Around The
Patrol Car?”

The “Roar” set wasn’t the first or last time Signal headlines screamed about a human attacked by a quarter-ton African lion.

In the great rains of 1969, there was only one day here in February when the sun came out. Nonstop torrential torrents tore out roads and bridges, and stranded hundreds. The rains up Soledad Canyon were so severe, they washed great sections of the fencing around Africa U.S.A. The Signal reported the strangest sight: a groundskeeper walking a hippo and giraffe along the railroad tracks to higher ground. Three full-grown lions escaped and were prowling in a residential trailer park a half-mile down the canyon. Two were found wandering the mobile home estates and shot. The third?

In a driving rain, a lone sheriff’s deputy was carefully searching for the last escaped predator. The big cat appeared from behind a trailer about 100 feet away and charged. A charging lion can cover 100 YARDS in less than three seconds. The deputy fired. The lion fell about 30 yards away, got up and charged again. The deputy fired again, fatally hitting the lion as it was flying through the air toward him. It SKIDDED, dead, right up to his feet.

How do you answer the question from your wife: “How did work go today, dear?”

By the way. Not counting the estimated 100 injured by African lions during the shooting of “Roar,” there were a total of six OTHER separate attacks by African lions this past century in the SCV.

Oh deer me!!
In the blink of an eye ago, deer by the thousands roamed the SCV. I remember driving home one night to Sand Canyon along Placerita Canyon Road. This huge buck was dutifully trotting along in the oncoming lane.

About a quarter-mile behind, matching the deer stride-for-stride, was a coyote. Once, in Downtown Newhall about 20 years ago, I had a doe run out by Hart Park. It ran headfirst into the side of my truck. It lay there for a few moments, got up, took the 8-count, shook its head and ran off, never to play football again.

Many an old-timer here has a story about near-misses or hitting a deer.

In the last century, The Signal has reported about bucks seeing their reflection in a Downtown Newhall storefront window and charging the glass. They’ve broken into the front windows of several homes all over the valley — and once in 1953, The Signal noted, right through a Newhall Elementary School window. It’s a bit dicey, persuading a 200-pound buck out of your living room.

Deer season started in the heat of August and hunters by the thousands invaded the SCV. It was a temporary boon to the economy. Right after World War II, some 7,000 hunters hit the valley, shooting 252 bucks in the first three days.

The hunters almost always came out on top.

Almost.

The Signal reported in 1936 how Ray Biscailuz and his two sons ended up on the wrong end of a hunt. Biscailuz, brother to legendary L.A. Sheriff Gene Biscailuz, lived out here in Newhall. The trio had fired several times at a large buck and missed. The deer did a quick about-face and chased the men of the family up a tall tree.

In 1951, The Signal noted that in the previous year, 19 hunters were killed and 54 seriously injured.

This was the all-time worst-case scenario of a deer hunt gone awry. Or, maybe it was just karma.

In October 1926, The Mighty Signal reported that four Los Angeles men never made it home from a Newhall hunting expedition. The hunters had three deer strapped to the hood of their Model T when the driver gunned the Ford to beat a train at the Placerita crossing. They didn’t. All four died — seven including the deer.

Mangy kie-yotes
I used to till the upper field on a big Ford tractor and would notice every time I plowed, the coyotes would come out of the hills and sit on the sidelines. The vibration from the tractor would make the ground rumble, sending all manner of rodents to the surface. Nature’s side note? When my father-in-law Ed Muhl drove the tractor, the coyotes would stay an extra 100 yards away. Ed always drove with a rifle in the tractor and I didn’t. Ed said the coyotes could smell the gunpowder.

Coyotes have been roaming the SCV for more than 1 million years. They are deceptive creatures and then some.

The Signal noted how Kathee Wiley in the 1990s was riding locally with a friend and her dog. A young, friendly female coyote appeared on a ridge and the golden Labrador retriever scampered off to play. The coyote was bounding up and down, rolling over and seemingly in love with life and the dog. Mrs. Wiley is a bona fide cowgirl and immediately saw the trap. She screamed: “NO!” and galloped toward the pooch and the wild dog. The retriever disappeared over the hill and Wiley came up to see a pack of six coyotes tearing into the pet. She charged the pack on horseback, scattering them. The dog was partially disemboweled, but they were able to get it to a vet and an emergency operation that saved its life.

The Signal reported of the strangest, almost surreal evening in 1951. Seems dozens of coyotes had stampeded out of the local hills and canyons. In the distance, you could hear the plaintive howl of another predator — one never seen in the SCV. A pack of timber wolves were passing through. A few dozen terrified coyotes were huddled in the storefronts and under light posts.

Then, there’s yuppies — the most delicate of local fauna. In July 1981, a newly arrived resident called this newspaper to complain. Out of breath, she tattled that “heartless pet owners” had been abandoning their “starving, skinny dogs” in Downtown Newhall. Upon further investigation, the canines in question turned out to be coyotes.

Speaking of, three times in our known history, huge feral packs of dogs had to be hunted down with most being killed. A huge pack of about 75 was attacking livestock and humans in the 1930s. Same thing happened in the 1950s, with a pack of around 150, most about German shepherd size, wandering between the Antelope Valley and Saugus, attacking everything on the food chain, humans included. A massive posse eradicated all of them. And, after the 1971 earthquake, people moved away from the SCV, many leaving their pets. Another large mob of dogs formed in that no man’s land between Oat Mountain and Granada Hills.

Little critters, some hairy, some not
So many stories.

In 1972, two children somehow broke into Africa U.S.A. to liberate a pair of kindred spirits. The boy and girl, 9 and 10, had kidnapped a pair of Siberian tiger cubs. They were caught playing with them in an abandoned barn on a nearby ranch in Acton. The cubs were valued at $4,000 each.

The technical name is Gasterosteus Aculeatus Williamsoni. It’s named after a young lieutenant and surveyor, Robert S. Williamson who mapped out the future Soledad Canyon Road. In the mid-1850s, it was Williamson who discovered the unarmored spiny stickleback fish.

Decades forward, in 1982, Guy Welch was in federal court — again. His crime? Murdering 66 of our favorite minute local endangered species. Welch had rechanneled the Santa Clara River up in the Agua Dulce hills for his compound. The Signal noted the jury, after eight grueling hours, voted “6 for Man, 6 for Fish.” In other words, it was a hung jury. Welch was retried months later for the same offense, and, again, a hung jury.

Locals used to take an active role in saving not just the spiny stickleback, but also other creek-side creatures. In summer of 1941, The Signal noted that one of my favorite organizations, The Sand Canyon Ladies Auxiliary, banded together to gather frogs and pollywogs and transplant them to the east fork where water was more plentiful.

The Signal noted nearly a century ago that in the early 20th century, grey squirrels were the predominant species here in the SCV. Then, in the 1910s and ’20s, red squirrel ranches popped up, many in Newhall’s Wildwood Canyon. Imported from the east, the reds were raised for their pelts to make coat collars. When the squirrel boom went bust, the ranchers opened the cages. In a few decades, the much larger reds spread across the valley, driving the greys out.

Drat it bothers me to no end that I have to end this segment. I could fill a set of encyclopedias with all the animal stories The Mighty Signal has covered.

Let’s end with this one:
I’m not sure if this should be in Lost Signal Souls or Missing Links. But, in 1941, Signal Editor Fred Trueblood wrote of “mysterious, half-human screams, like a cross between a ghost and wounded mountain lion.” He noted that a retired sheriff’s deputy and his son were hunting up Pico Canyon, by Mentryville, when a wave of “…the most wretched smell” stopped them in their tracks. Both men did an about-face and sprinted out of the canyon. They reported spotting impossibly huge, barefoot human footprints, about 20 inches long and 10 inches wide, in muddy ground by the trail, with a stride about 6 feet long. Trueblood joked about trying to find shoes for the giant barefooted traveler with the tough feet.

The story of Sasquatch was relatively unknown in 1941 Santa Clarita. The popular term, “Bigfoot,” wouldn’t be coined for nearly another 30 years.

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 and has earned 119 major writing awards. Come back next Saturday for installment No. 36 in our 100th Anniversary and History of The Mighty Signal.

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