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

January 02, 1988|GORDON GRANT | 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.

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