The last coyote hunter

The last coyote hunter

The waning days of South Pasadena’s Grant Malcolmson

By Josh Sides 12/26/2013

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When South Pasadena residents began calling Police Chief Frank Higgins about mutilated chickens and missing cats in September of 1937, he knew that he was in over his head.  Sixty-one and in diminishing health, Higgins had presided over the small city’s force since 1916. His career had been honorable, but largely uneventful; a city of only 14,000 souls surrounding the unpopulated Monterey Hills, South Pasadena escaped the storied crime wave of 1920s and 1930s Los Angeles. It was an only slightly less toney version of its Northern counterpart, and its genteel residents were no less determined to make the society pages. But the fact was South Pasadena had grown — doubling its population between 1920 and the late 1930s, and in a city of only 3.4 square miles, that was enough to transform the ecosystem of some of its oldest residents: coyotes. Crowded out of the lowlands and the Arroyo during the population boom, they sought the higher ground and cover of the partially wooded Monterey Hills in the late 1930s. And from there, “a bloodthirsty pack of killer coyotes” — as the Los Angeles Times described them, launched nightly sorties in the lowlands, making off with chickens and ducks, and often, family pets. And news from neighboring Los Angeles could not have comforted Higgins: there, a motorist had recently struck and killed a coyote in the Central Business District. Even with a relatively modernized police force at his helm, Higgins knew that only an old-time cowboy and coyote hunter would do. He called on Grant Malcolmson.  

Born in Fresno in 1893, Malcolmson lived in South Pasadena since about 1900, or at least as long as anyone in 1937 could still remember. When he wasn’t killing coyotes for sport, he was a handy man, and his family was emphatically not society page material: in 1914, police had dragged his nineteen-year-old brother, Bruce, to jail for statutory rape for his relations with a sixteen-year-old girl. But when it came to killing coyotes, there was no man more capable than Grant Malcolmson. In fact, some residents speculated that it was his brief retirement in the early 1930s that had triggered the coyote spike; after his trusted dogs died, Malcolmson gave up hunting the hills just south of his Monterrey Road property. By 1937, he had replaced them with an English setter named Gunner who he described as the “best darn coyote dog in Southern California.” When Higgins offered him the appointment as “chief coyote exterminator” at $5 a pelt, Malcolmson was perfectly willing to put Gunner to the test. 

Even by the standards of 1937, Malcolmson was an anachronism. For Pasadenans entertained by “Billy the Kid” (1930), “Hopalong Cassidy” (1935), “Westward Ho” (1935), or countless other westerns of the era, Malcolmson seemed as if he had stepped right out of the silver screen.  He complained about having to abandon his rifle for a twenty-gauge shotgun because of the new downrange obstacles — usually “necking” couples and other automotive joy riders in the Monterey Hills. He rode a brown mare named Peggy and carried his shotgun in a scabbard on the side of his Mexican stock saddle. He also sported a rawhide riata and a coil of braded horsehair rope in case any coyotes needed lassoing. But the results were impressive: Malcolmson bagged fourteen coyotes in his first week on the job. “Every night the coyotes seem to howl their defiance,” the Los Angeles Times reported, but they were no match for Malcolmson. By 1943, Malcolmson brought along his son, Grant Jr., and together they bagged close to one hundred. 

Malcolmson enjoyed a good, six-year run as South Pasadena’s chief coyote hunter, but the business of killing animals changed dramatically in the post-World War II years. As the city of Los Angeles — besieged by its own coyote invasion — and other locales clamored for more systematic countywide pest management, the days of the lone hunter quickly ended. In 1942, the county contracted with the US Fish and Wildlife Service and before long, a phalanx of professional trappers descended upon the region. Malcolmson quietly lived out his days as a handy man. By 1993, the county banned, outright, the taking of coyotes, although Malcolmson’s unique service had already fallen out of favor long before he died in 1971, too soon to watch a wave of ecological enthusiasm demonize his well-honed craft. 

Dr. Josh Sides is the Whitsett Chair of California History Cal State Northridge. Contact him at jsides@csun.edu.

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