Silver Boy

A 1930 article in the Los Angeles Times presented

An interview with Dr. Vance Joseph Hoyt, author of last year’s best seller in animal stories ….

One of these stories includes a California condor.

From the interview readers learn that

“Silver Boy,” Dr. Hoyt’s book, tells the story of a silver gray fox ….

For several years Dr. Hoyt has been catching the wild animals in box traps, making pets of them and living on equal terms with them in his place in Topanga Canyon.

Since the appearance of Dr. Hoyt’s book he has been recognized as an authority on the animal life of this region ….

Dr. Hoyt says that of all forms of authorship the nature-writer must be the most accurate and that personally he is as conscientious in keeping the records of a baby rattler or fox [as] he would be with those of a scion of the royal family.

In the interview, Hoyt shares his passion for the chaparral, the “elfin forest” that surrounds urban Los Angeles and supports a wide array of animal life. Hoyt says that

The chaparral is the home of the largest bird that flies, the condor, as well as the smallest, the hummingbird.

But Hoyt is frustrated with his fellow citizens:

I was appalled at the lack of knowledge of the average Californian regarding the chaparral and the animal-life we have here at the doorstep of Los Angeles.

This is strange country – strange trees, strange animals and strange climatic conditions, and … filled with wonders for him who has eyes to see.

Given this review, how could I not be eager to read Silver Boy: The Gray Fox of Topanga?

The preface makes plain the nature of Hoyt’s book:

In this chronicle of the adventures of Silver Boy, I have hewn true to fox psychology as I have known it during years of intimate association with this clever little animal. There are no situations in this epic … but that are founded upon incidents and episodes that I have witnessed ….

The first chapter describes the capture of Silver Boy by the story’s human protagonist, Alden (in the role of Hoyt). We read about the life of a gray fox in the wild and of Alden’s capture and taming of Silver Boy. After many months, the fox is set free. But every evening, Silver Boy returns for the food Alden sets out for his friend. And during the days, Alden closely follows the tamed fox to learn about fox life.

The second chapter “The Swoop of Doom” begins with more of fox life in the wild. Then:

[Silver Boy] glanced upward into the blue void of the heavens, where, suddenly, there appeared a small black speck….

As the seconds passed .. the speck became larger and darker, and, seemingly dropped with greater speed. Then the black blotch took on the shape of a huge bird ….

Down, down it came …. Hissing and snorting its hunger-cry, the terror zoomed the length of the canyon in its swoop of doom.

… the huge bird dived straight as a plumb-bob at the fleeing form of the fox.

Silver Boy escapes. The California condor dives at Silver Boy again but

The terrible talons closed a fraction of a second too late. And, once more, the old fox voiced his hatred for the arrogant ruler of the sky ….

Later, the condor captures a young fox and flies off, holding its prey with its talons.

The fox puppy was hardly a meal for the condor. About eighteen pounds of food each day are required to appease the appetite of so large a bird …. And this must be food well ripened, from at least five to ten days old. However, the catch of to-day would be sufficient for a portion of a feast a week hence.

Alden has been observing the condor and has a plan, which he shares with the fox:

“An arrogant old bird, isn’t he?” he remarked to his former pet. “But you’ll be rid of him yet, Silver Boy. His days of marauding are numbered.

“No, we mustn’t kill him,” he continued to address the fox …. “We’d have the State game commissioner on our necks. But we’ll capture and deport Mr. Condor, in the interest of natural history.”

Twelve pages later, the condor is trapped.

The monarch of all winged life would never again raid the wild folk of Cold Creek Canyon.

At the beginning of the next chapter we are told that

As if by some mysterious instinct, every furtive beast and bird knew that the winged killer had been removed, and that it was once more safe for them to venture forth from lair and cover.

Of course, most of this is nonsense. California condors do not “cry”, attack live prey, or eat 18 pounds of food a day. They are incapable of grasping with their feet. They prefer fresh meat. And so on.

I kept thinking about what Hoyt had written about his book in its preface:

There are no situations in this epic … but that are founded upon incidents and episodes that I have witnessed ….

Feeling discouraged, I scanned the rest of the book for further mentions of the California condor. Finding none, I did not read the rest of the book.

Of course, I could not help wondering how people a century from now will view our understanding of non-human animals.

Hoyt’s Silver Boy offers the negative view of the California condor that was widely held in the early 20th century. For another example of a condor being falsely cast as a villainous creature, see the post: Bozo the killer.

Crane, Helen R. Our friends of the chaparral. Los Angeles Times. 7 September 1930.

Hoyt, Vance Joseph. Silver boy: the gray fox of Topanga. Lothrop, Lee and Shepard. 1929.