Photos from the Vault

In 1965, a Las Vegas leopard on the lam makes headlines in Paso Robles

Maria Dokolas talks from the safety of her station wagon to San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs, while Rajah watches, center. At right, the owner gives her pet a goodnight kiss at the Atascadero Zoo in January 1965.
Maria Dokolas talks from the safety of her station wagon to San Luis Obispo County Deputy Sheriffs, while Rajah watches, center. At right, the owner gives her pet a goodnight kiss at the Atascadero Zoo in January 1965. Telegram-Tribune

Some days, newspaper front pages are jammed with news.

On Jan. 20, 1965, President Lyndon Baines Johnson was inaugurated as an elected president of the United States. The former vice president previously had been sworn in as president after the 1963 assassination of John F. Kennedy.

On that day in 1965, Malcom X, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were all still alive.

Johnson’s speech was an attempt to unite a nation struggling with racism, in the midst of protest and delivering civil rights that all citizens were entitled to. Said Johnson:

“When any citizen denies his fellow, saying: ‘His color is not mine or his beliefs are strange and different,’ in that moment, he betrays America …”

“Let us reject any among us who seek to reopen old wounds and rekindle old hatreds … for the hour and the day and the time are here to achieve progress without strife, to achieve change without hatred; not without difference of opinion but without the deep and abiding divisions which scar the union for generations.”

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In other news on the page, a 45-year-old World War II veteran died at Cave Landing while fishing. He fell from a rocky cliff and was the fourth man to die in the surf since the weekend.

A petition with 1,600 names was submitted to San Luis Obispo by the Motel Owners Association to try to repeal the 4 percent motel bed tax. Paso Robles, Pismo Beach and Arroyo Grande had already approved bed taxes, but none of the towns had started to collect money.

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The most unusual front-page story was about a runaway leopard owner.

Staff writer Bill Glines filled the story with puns and pop culture references, including one about the Esso (now Exxon) oil advertisement with the tag line “Put a tiger in your tank.” It is unlikely a story would be written so frivolously today, especially in light of a recent fatal attack by dog.

From The Telegram-Tribune on Jan. 20, 1965:

Rajah and Maria — a disappearing act: A story of a leopard who took it on the lam

If it had been a tiger under the hood, Paso Robes police probably wouldn’t have noticed.

But when it was a leopard in the back of a station wagon — well, it was time to call the paddy wagon.

Mrs. Maria Dokolas, 30, the owner of Rajah the leopard, saw spots before her eyes when police wanted to do something about her 2 1/2 -year-old, 120-pound pet Tuesday. She staged a sort of one-woman seven-hour siege before Rajah wound up behind bars at the Atascadero Zoo.

“Really, Rajah can be quite gentle,” she explained. He has slept at the foot of her king-sized bed in Las Vegas and “often he even takes my blanket from me if he gets cold.”

But Paso Robles police and San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Office deputies who arrived on the scene early Tuesday afternoon took a rather dim view of Mrs. Dokolas’ heart-warming story.

She admitted that she had taken it on the lam with her lamb after Rajah attacked a 21-year-old woman in Las Vegas on Sunday. More than 100 stitches were taken to close the wound, according to United Press International.

The press service reported that she was showing Rajah to a group of persons when he broke his leash, bolted out of his station wagon and attacked the woman.

Ordinarily, Mrs. Dokolas explained calmly, Rajah’s daily diet consists of 12 pounds of meat a day … maybe lamb, beef or chicken. She also tosses in a half-dozen eggs and a couple of cans of condensed milk. Then there are Rajah’s vitamins.

She told Telegram-Tribune photographer Jim Vestal that when she heard persons angered by the attack yelling, “Kill him! Kill him!” she became frightened.

“I jumped in my car and left,” she said.

She added that Rajah had been antagonized before the Las Vegas caper. Under “normal” conditions in Las Vegas, Mrs. Dokolas explained, Rajah has his own “run,” a brick block house and cage.

“I’ve often seen kids playing with him,” she said. Rajah, she added, has had his rabies shots.

By mid-afternoon Tuesday, sheriff’s deputies had escorted Rajah and his owner to the Atascadero Zoo. But the dark-haired woman would budge no further, nor would Rajah from viewing other zoo animals. Rajah is not used to seeing other animals except for the human species, she said.

At 7 p.m. a veterinarian showed up with some tranquilizers.

Rajah throughout the ordeal had shown a temperament that ranged from mellow mood to anxious pacing.

Mrs. Dokolas was given three pills for the leopard and she climbed into the back seat, calmly slipping her hand and arm into Rajah’s mouth to feed him. An hour and four more tranquilizers later, Rajah was drowsy.

Said deputy Sgt. Lloyd Duty, “We’ve had enough. It’s taken hours to do what should have been done in 15 minutes. Get it moved into that cage.” Minutes later, Rajah was pulled from the station wagon and half-walked, half-staggered to a monkey cage. Four men then carried the cage into larger, more permanent quarters.

As for Rajah, he had a good night’s sleep.

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942, dmiddlecamp@thetribunenews.com, @DavidMiddlecamp. Visit www.sanluisobispo.com/photos-from-the-vault to see old photos and read selected archives.

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