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Author depicts early Santa Monica Mountains in 1931 novel

Suzanne Guldimann, Freelance Reporter
2:51 pm PDT April 14, 2014

It was a lucky find; a battered old book with a green cloth cover embossed with an illustration of a mountain lion and a mule deer, and the title “Malibu.”

The novel, published in 1931, is a fictionalized account of author and naturalist Vance Joseph Hoyt’s experiences raising an orphaned mule deer fawn with a mountain lion kitten in the Santa Monica Mountains.

Like Austrian author Felix Salten’s 1923 novel “Bambi, a Life in the Woods,” translated into English and published in the United States in 1929, the story of Malibu is told primarily from the animals’ perspective.

Hoyt provides a fascinating look at the Santa Monica Mountains in the 1920s — describing the animals’ travels from Topanga all the way to Arroyo Sequit, during an era when most of the area was still a private wilderness.

Contemporary conservationists may shudder at the cavalier approach Hoyt takes to capturing and raising wild animals as pets, but Hoyt was a passionate advocate for wildlife in an era when there were few protections, and he was one of the Malibu area’s first animal activists. Hoyt makes a powerful case for banning hunting and trapping in the Santa Monica Mountains.  The book is a plea for peaceful coexistence with wildlife in at a time when wild animals were viewed by many as vermin.

“This is the era of big cities and machinery. I wouldn’t be here myself if it wasn’t as good a way as any of making a living,” a cynical game warden quips in the novel. 

Hoyt’s fictional alter ego responds: “...The day is coming when our forests will be closed to hunters, and such men as you will hold their positions because of their love for the beauty of their work, not just for the dollars they are paid.”

Hoyt’s novel follows the deer — named Malibu because “Malibu means bad road, rough going, and no one has a more rocky road to travel than a deer,” and Gato, the mountain lion, from birth to adulthood. Hoyt describes their unlikely friendship and their lives in the wild when they reach maturity, including encounters with hunters, poachers, traffic on the newly opened Pacific Coast Highway and even a 1920s wildfire that took the same path that the 1956 and 1978 fires would follow, burning Trancas and Decker canyons on a path to the sea.

Hoyt appears to have been an extremely popular writer whose works include numerous magazine articles and serials and a number of nature-themed novels, recounting his experiences with coyotes, bob cats, gray foxes and raccoons, among other animals.

The California legislature memorialized Hoyt’s death in 1967 with a proclamation honoring his work, but none of his books are currently in print and there is little biographical information available. However, the Topanga Historical Society’s monumental compendium of local history, “The Topanga Story,” provides a little background information. According to the book, Hoyt, an osteopath, naturalist and writer, purchased two lots in Red Rock Canyon in 1922. He and his wife, Ruth, and son, Albert, camped on the property while they built a cabin. Albert Hoyt went on to become the Topanga postmaster and was the founder of what would become the Resource Conservation District of the Santa Monica Mountains. 

“Dr. Hoyt had been raised by his grandfather, a wild west showman and Colorado miner, who instilled in him a love of nature,” “The Topanga Story” states.

In 1934, a film version of “Malibu” was produced, although the name was changed to “Sequoia.” A “New York Times” review, dated 1935, states:

“Let us not peer too closely at the alchemy by which Chester M. Franklin persuades a deer and a puma to provide two of the year’s great performances in ‘Sequoia.’ It is enough for us to know that the Capitol has succeeded its distinguished film edition of ‘David Copperfield’ with a remarkable photoplay of wildlife in the California mountains. In technical achievement, in photographic beauty and in the poetry of pure emotion, this drama of a strange friendship is a phenomenal photoplay.”

Author Zane Gray described the film as “Not only the best picture I have ever seen, but for me...the greatest picture of the decade.”  However, the Hollywood experience was disillusioning for Hoyt. “Producing a movie with wild animals brought many disheartening moments,” “The Topanga Story” reports.

Although Hoyt is largely forgotten today, he continued to write and publish, and was a lifelong champion of open space and protection for wildlife. 

“Nearly always it is man’s view of the hunt that is presented. Rarely has the animal’s side of the struggle been told,” Hoyt wrote in the foreword to “Malibu.” 

“[Man] has never recognized the rights of the lesser brothers of creation….but he is beginning to open his eyes! If this nature story will, in the slightest way, abate the desire to kill, the story of ‘Malibu’ will not have been written in vain.”

Hoyt would be pleased to know that the mountains and the animals he loved now have the protections he dreamed of as early as 1931. At the time of his death, in 1967, activists were already working to create a local National Park. They accomplished their goal in 1978, with the creation of the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, which includes much of Hoyt’s Red Rock Canyon and many of the other areas described in his book.