Of Whales and Men

Ah, wacky Venice. Where else could you have found a tribe of native East-Indian Igorottes living on the early pier, with their leader fervently pleading to become town dog-catcher? Or human flies scaling boardwalk buildings, along with a guy willingly setting himself on fire and then jumping from a low-flying plane into the salty depths of the Pacific Ocean, at night, no least? No less?!

By the way, their names were Chief Chy-anne - of the Igorotte tribe, Archie Crisp and Jack Williams - the human flies, and Jack Cox - the chicken-suited bi-plane diver.

Yeah, Venice had turned “carni,” because that’s how it had to be for a young city to stay vibrant in the early part of the last century. And so that’s how it was. Venice-of-America, once the birthplace of a “new city” based on intellectual ideals, had turned into a sea-shore sideshow town.

By the mid-teens, just before the effervescence of the roaring 20s came shimmering down, this town was ablaze with all the latest attractions an ocean-front city could provide. Everything from the racing roller coaster Race Thru the Clouds to the live alligator attraction, at the southeast foot of the Kinney Pier. There, set amongst the never-completed foundation of the ever-proposed Venice Hotel, was the alligator pit, where one could experience the primordial glory of these pre-historic monsters without having to travel to the far corners of civilization, or Florida at least.

This attraction was just one of many early zoological displays that kept the young city of Venice alive. As was befitting of the time, aquariums and zoos were becoming ever more popular, and the attractiveness of these presentations kept the crowds coming and the coffers filled. For it was quite not uncommon for most forms of the then prevalent “world of animal wonders” to be featured somewhere along the Kinney Pier. Be it bears, baboons, elephants or whales. Or maybe even loud jungle lions.

And yet I know that there’s wild animals that prowl around the backyards of Venice still today.

You probably were aware that in the 20s and 30s, this wild animal streak encompassed monkey racing in toy cars amidst the pier concessions, along with whippet racing along the beach, just north of the Kinney Pier. And then there was the circus elements -from the late-night growling of the big cats jailed in their travelling cages, and the roar of the lions at feeding time nightly heard far into the newly expanding city, to elephants being photographed on the beach all nice and docile with bathing-beauties. Or running rampant, frightened by a small dog that entered their winter quarters, rampaging as a pack, stampeding along Windward Avenue.

Pedestrians jumped through doorways and automobiles stopped in their tracks. Trumpeting as their speed increased, the pachyderms crossed the Pacific Electric tracks on Trolleyway, hesitated, then ran along Mildred Avenue toward Washington Boulevard where their trainer, Sidney Rink, finally overtook the big beasts. And while the elephants were gone, a number of horses and four camels took advantage of the broken fence in the corral and also made their escape.

Yeah, just out for an afternoon stroll that led to small-town havoc in March 1918. What a mad-cap adventure that must have been! I mean with all the influenza going around a bit at the time, and everyone living in a paranoiac state of hesitancy, it’s no wonder this zoological ensemble of attractions would always cause headlines.

Like this one from later that year -

Caged bear kills girl on Kinney Pier
November 3, 1918 Los Angeles times

“Tragedy at Venice” read the headline in The Times after a caged bear fatally injured a 2-year-old girl on Kinney Pier.

Titiana Corine was visiting the pier with her parents, Mr. and Mrs. D.M. Williard, “when she went too near to the bear’s cage” at the north end, the newspaper said.

A bear reached a paw through a gap in the cage and began mauling the child's leg.

One man unsuccessfully tried to pull Titiana from the bear. An officer shot the bear and the one next to it, The Times said. The child was rushed to a hospital, but she died within an hour.

The Williards had rented a home in Venice the week before to recuperate from influenza. After their child's death, the couple returned to Los Angeles, the newspaper noted.

How about this one? It’s a pisser! -

Baboon Escapes, Runs Amok in Venice
March 31, 1931 Los Angeles Times

About 10 a.m., a dark gray baboon, 4 feet tall, weighing about 100 pounds, broke the lock on its cage at the monkey farm near the end of the Venice Pier. “Maddened by the taste of human blood, its sharp teeth slashing a way through a terrified crowd of pleasure seekers. a giant baboon attacked two women, a man and a boy.

Singling them out of the crowd and cornering them before leaping at them to inflict ugly wounds with teeth and claws,” The Times reported. “For several minutes the infuriated animal, vicious member of the ape family, created a reign of terror on the pier and in the central part of the city as it leaped from victim to victim - suddenly reverting to its jungle instincts to kill.”

The article detailed how the baboon went straight for Mrs. Irene De Molina of Hollywood, following her into the Venice ballroom when she rushed to escape. The baboon clawed and bit her and attacked three others - including a 10-year-old boy - before Venice police Sgt. John W. Brunty fired three shots into its chest, right paw and throat. By then, the baboon had made its way to the main business street, Windward Avenue, The Times reported. Brunty said of the drama: “I guess I was lucky to stop that baboon before he stopped me.” The victims’ injuries were not life-threatening.

Thank God. I wonder how long the monkey farm or petting zoo or world of animal wonders held out before the pier was finally closed in April of 1946? I do know that the whole idea of wild-animal attractions along the strand was still going strong in March, ‘44. There’s a great publicity photo of 5-year-old Moe the Elephant, all astride with some blonde bimbette sitting amongst his husks as I remember, shilling for the Arthur Bros. Circus. Dateline: Venice, California.

Now, with the pier gone, Venice fell out of the media’s “animal attraction” eye. Nothing good happened in Venice. The water was polluted, the beatniks were polluted, the night was polluted.

And as with the glory of Mother Nature, everything turns around. The ocean begat life, and death, again. Here’s another newspaper clip -

Dead Whale
March 6, 1995 Los Angeles Times

A dead 25-foot humpback whale that washed onto Venice Beach had apparently been accidentally rammed and killed by a Navy destroyer, biologists said Monday.

The carcass washed ashore Sunday, said biologist Tom Lewis, a member of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County's whale team. John Heyning, the head of the museum’s marine mammal program, spent a long day at Venice Beach recovering the remains of this humpback whale - a rarity as strandings go.

It was the first time a humpback, an endangered species, was found on a Southern California beach in more than a decade. “We think the propeller killed it,” Lewis said.

The whale’s tail was missing and its body badly gashed. It had probably been hit five or six days before it washed ashore, Lewis said.

The body was far too large to move - adult humpbacks can weigh up to 60 tons - so the recovery team decided to take just the head, which, pound for pound, would give them the most information about the animal’s life. After cutting through skin, blubber, and muscle with sickle-like Japanese flensing knives, they hoisted the severed head onto the back of a flatbed truck and transported it to the warehouse to be cleaned and analyzed

Researchers planned to collect tissue samples for DNA studies, blubber for analysis of manmade contaminants, and the skull. The rest of the carcass was buried on the beach.

And suddenly, there came a whole influx of stranded whales…

Baby Whale
January 12, 1997

A lost baby whale washed around helplessly in the surf today on a popular Southern California beach. A search for its missing mother was unsuccessful.

Lifeguards hoped the 3-day-old whale would be reunited with its mother before the weakened calf dies from starvation.

The 12-foot-long, 1,500-pound whale was spotted on Venice Beach Friday morning. It beached itself several times.

“It was rolling helplessly in the surfline,” said Los Angeles County Lifeguards spokesman Danny Douglas.

Overnight, lifeguards monitored the lost baby whale from a distance. They worried that without nursing, the baby would soon die.

“We want to keep people away, boaters away as much as possible so that if the mother does come back, it has access to its baby,” Douglas.

The baby apparently became separated from its mother during the whales’ annual migration from Alaska to Baja California.

Lifeguards and the Coast Guard searched for its mother or a pod it may have come from. They spotted a lone adult whale to the north near the Santa Monica Pier Friday afternoon, but later lost sight of it and were forced to call off the search.

More recently, I mean within the last 20-27 years - yikes! I can’t believe I’ve been hanging around here that long! - there’s the stories about the packs of wild dogs that used to roam the neighborhood along Ocean Front Walk, circa 1980. Rumors abounded about a gang of 5 or 6 dogs, dark in color, medium to thin build, running rampant in the early morning hours each day, rummaging for food along Speedway. Or along the beach. Neighbors just couldn’t understand how they could continue to exist, and furthermore, why noone did anything about them. A mystery to this day.

Also, there are many local residents who can easily remember the scourge of the wild green parrots, circa 1998-2004 that affected the Central Venice area. This flock of around 20 rascally Eclectus roratus used to ratify their jungle existence in this truly urban environment - proud and loud, very early each morning. And if you were there locally, I’m sure you can remember the incessant squawking they’d orchestrate while scrummaging for food in the common Eucalyptus trees each morning, too early to appreciate and too loud to stand.

While all this wild urban ridiculousness was going on, in 1993, Muscovy ducks, released into the canals of Venice, tested positive for duck plague. Ducks and geese on the canals began to have violent seizures and then died.

People were feeding the ducks and geese, which then caused them to have more and larger clutches. The canals had become overpopulated, resulting in fighting, injuries, death and disease. All the ducks and geese in the canals were ultimately rounded up by the California Department of Fish and Game and killed out of fear that some birds might fly to other areas and infect wild flocks.

This issue received international attention, when residents tried to save their favorite birds by taking them to secret locations in an attempt to save them. However, it was the release of domestic ducks, compounded by feeding and the resulting overpopulation that was the real tragedy.

Luckily, the duck situation is presently back to normal, and all we’ve really got to deal with now are the brown squirrels, which can become almost a family pet. Take Nutley, our family squirrel queen of a long 4 years. She’s accommodated herself through numerous generations of squire offspring, and then shooed them off. But now she’s so obliging, she gets along with our cat Dolce Vida as if they were old pals. She even chases him around the yard, as if some inverse idea of the way squirrels and cats should react was actually real and happening.

Or what about the recent raccoon controversy, infecting the canals once again, receiving almost international exposure over one attacked dog named Charlie, pinned by a gang of raccoons that tore into her flesh and nearly gnawed off her tail.

“Wildlife experts were reluctant to move the raccoons to the wilderness because they could have trouble surviving and might introduce diseases. Residents were advised to keep raccoons away by getting rid of trellises and bouganvillea. Strobe lights, motion-activated sprinklers and talk radio can scare off the animals.

These animals have chomped on ducks, a parrot and the legs of a turtle that they dug out of hibernation. Koi fish in one resident’s pond were massacred,” according to the report by The Associated Press last summer.

Which brings us to the grand raison detre of this piece, from an article last April 30th, found in West Magazine. Jim Hayes, the author of this recollection about his memories of growing up in Southern California in the 1930s, is a former newspaper editor and reporter, and now a writing coach in Los Osos.

"Our duplex on a side street off Windward Avenue was a drab island in a sea of opulence and hoopla created by Abbott Kinney, an asthmatic heir to an Eastern tobacco fortune who had created a grand Venetian city on the marshes and sand dunes south of Santa Monica—complete with canals, lagoons and an ornate Italianate business district. To fill cafés and stores and attract buyers for mansions with gondola docks, he built a streetcar line, a huge amusement park and a boardwalk. People flocked to his “Coney Island of the Pacific.”

It was a wonderland for a kid, even one whose father thought carousel rides were a waste of money. He and I did free things together on his days off. We'd admire the boats in the lagoon, peek over the mansion walls and people-watch on the boardwalk. Dad would swing me from the ground to perch on his shoulder. Piggyback like that we were taller than everyone we met.

“We’re a centaur, you and me,” Dad said. “With you on top we’re probably 7 feet tall.”

On one Saturday ramble, the centaur was assaulted by a stink worse than the outfall beyond the end of the pier where Venice’s sewage flowed into the bay. The odor was coming from a plywood and metal shack on the beach that must have been as long as a couple of cars laid end-to-end. On the side facing Ocean Front Walk was a sign that read: “See the Gargantuan Denizen of the Ocean Depths. Adults 5 cents, Children free.”

“Jimmy,” Dad said, “I do believe that overpowering, obnoxious, gut-churning stench is coming from the whale exhibit.” He swung me off his shoulder, reluctantly dug a nickel out of his pocket and put the coin in the outstretched hand of a blubbery-looking man standing in the door of the makeshift exhibit hall.

“My apologies for the unpleasant odor,” the curator said. “We’re having trouble with the embalming. But you’ll find that getting up close to this sperm whale, one of the world’s largest toothed cetaceans—called Physeter macrocephalus by the scientists—is an experience you’ll never forget.”

I was certain we’d remember the stink forever, but the words already were jumbled in my head.

“I’d like to direct your attention over here,” the museum man continued, pointing to a gray object, big around as a telephone pole, which towered over my head. “This is the great beast’s penis. Or with whales, it’s properly called a dork.”

Penis was a word I understood. If your father is just about the smartest man in the world and your mother is a nurse, they don’t mince around with baby talk about body parts. They’d never call a penis a dork.

“I’m very impressed with your exhibit,” Dad said. “But the godawful stench is bringing tears to the boy’s eyes. We may return some other day.”

We never went back. A couple of days later, my father met me after school with news that the whale exhibit was no more. He said gas from the putrefying whale carcass had exploded, blowing the shack to smithereens and spattering the beach with whale meat, guts and blood.

Looking back, I am certain Dad was pulling my leg — and had amazing prophetic powers. Seventy years later, his tale of the exploding whale still echoes as the stuff of urban myths, books and interminable Internet postings."

Upon reading this amazing tale of putrefying proportions, I contacted Mr. Hayes, to hopefully have him update me with any real answers to the multitude of questions I had swirling around in my head. Was there really an exploding whale here in Venice, and if so, how come nobody knew about it?

His response was sober. “The year was 1929 or 1930. I was 4 or 5 years old then; I am nearly 81 now. Memories can be dulled by the passage of time. I am certain my father was joking about the whale’s disappearance. The phrase “prophetic powers” refers to latter day urban myths and such realities as the Oregon and Taiwan exploding whale incidents, and their perpetuation on the Internet long after my father's death. I am now nearly blind and am an unreliable source. I have neither the time nor energy for any further exercises in recall of events and places of more than 70 years ago.”

And yet, I’ve seen photos of a big leviathon strapped to the side of the Kinney pier, with hordes of gawkers staring down entranced at the sight of this “monster of the sea” so close. So there actually was a whale at Venice beach, and in all actuality, it could have exploded. And that would have been some wild animal show!

As a side note, isn’t it interesting that the newly opened Danny’s Deli features a wild dog going after a big sandwich as their mascot? I guess it’s all in keeping with Venice’s wild animal nature.