In 1916, Cornelius Birket Johnson, a Los Angeles fruit farmer, killed the last known grizzly bear in Southern California and the second-to last confirmed grizzly bear in the entire state of California. Johnson was neither a sportsman nor a glory hound; he simply hunted down the animal that had been trampling through his orchard for three nights in a row, feasting on his grape harvest and leaving big enough tracks to make him worry for the safety of his wife and two young daughters. That Johnson’s quarry was a grizzly bear made his pastoral life in Big Tujunga Canyon suddenly very complicated. It also precipitated a quagmire involving a violent Scottish taxidermist, a noted California zoologist, Los Angeles museum administrators, and the pioneering mammalogist and Smithsonian curator Clinton Hart Merriam. As Frank S. Daggett, the founding director of the Los Angeles County Museum of History, Science and Art, wrote in the midst of the controversy: “I do not recollect ever meeting a case where scientists, crooks, and laymen were so inextricably mingled.” The extermination of a species, it turned out, could bring out the worst in people.
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