Rare Animals Get Rest, Relaxation and Procreation at Island Hideaway
Rare Arabian oryx roam nonchalantly across a forest clearing with their magnificent spiral horns held high, while a herd of Grevy zebras kicks up some dust in the next meadow.
Not far away, playful lemurs scamper through the trees.
For someone to stumble unwittingly into this setting, it looks for all the world like a child’s dream of Africa, where strange and wonderful creatures--not humans--run the land.
But this is not even another continent. It is the New York Zoological Society’s sanctuary for endangered species on St. Catherine’s Island, a piney piece of land 30 miles south of Savannah where the natives--run-of-the-mill animals such as raccoons, alligators and white-tail deer--are thoroughly befuddled by their peculiar neighbors.
“The other animals don’t seem to know what to make of them,” said Tim Keith-Lucas, a University of the South professor who is studying lemurs.
There are other wildlife survival centers around the nation where breeding programs are developed for endangered species--many zoos have such programs--but none is more remote than this one.
St. Catherine’s is six miles from the bustle of the mainland, separated by sawgrass marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway. The only way to reach the island is by boat.
Although something as simple as going to the store for bread and milk is a roundabout task for the handful of people who live and work on the island and transporting animals can be an unspeakable ordeal, the privacy and lack of public disturbance make this sanctuary unique and effective.
Curious boaters occasionally run ashore on the 11-mile-long island’s deserted beaches, but for the most part the animals live in peace and the curators work in quiet.
“It seems sort of appropriate to help endangered species here because this island itself is sort of an endangered species,” said Royce Hayes, superintendent of the island and one of a handful of people who actually live on it. “Plus the fact we aren’t bothered by people driving up on Sunday afternoon to see the animals like you would be on the mainland.”
The island itself has a colorful history.
Guale Indians were the earliest inhabitants, and Spanish, French and English explorers settled there from time to time. Researchers believe the island is the site of the northernmost Spanish mission on the Atlantic coast.
A later resident was Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who otherwise put pen to paper so infrequently that his signature has become a valuable collector’s item.
Refuge for Freed Slaves
After the Civil War, a settler named Tunis Campbell made the island a refuge for freed Southern blacks.
St. Catherine’s has become a haven for archeologists from the American Museum of Natural History, and they have unearthed human bones, pottery chips, Christian medallions and other artifacts--some dating back to 2000 BC.
Ruins of a 16th-Century mission have been uncovered--a church, barracks and well--and jagged walls of centuries-old huts made of tabby, an adobe-like substance of oyster shell and sand, still link St. Catherine’s to the past.
The island remains in a near-pristine state. There are only a handful of buildings, including Gwinnett’s restored plantation house and small cabins for visiting researchers. Telephones reached St. Catherine’s two years ago.
St. Catherine’s was bought and sold several times until it was purchased in 1943 by Edward John Noble, who built his fortune on candy and communications. Noble, who used the island to entertain friends and celebrities, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, died in 1958. St. Catherine’s became the property of the Noble Foundation.
In the late 1960s, Frank Larkin, a trustee of the Noble Foundation and Noble’s son-in-law, interested the Bronx Zoo in experimenting with the island as a refuge, and the first animals were brought there in 1974.
Today more than two dozen endangered species--including giant Seychelles Islands tortoises, brilliantly colored Pesquet’s parrots from New Guinea and Jackson hartebeests from Africa--are on St. Catherine’s. The island’s projects are supported by a spinoff of the Noble Foundation and the New York Zoological Society, with the help of participating zoos and special grants.
“What we’re trying to do at St. Catherine’s is pioneer some of the techniques of long-term management of small populations of wild creatures,” said William Conway, director of the New York Zoological Society.
Several other zoological societies contribute animals to the program. They are cared for, studied and encouraged to breed in simulated natural surroundings--almost like a giant zoo without the camera-toting tourists.
Most of the endangered species are contained--birds in long cages filled with plants and tree branches, and larger animals in huge fenced pastures. The lemurs are the only exception, with the run of the island.
Some of the animals are extinct in the wild, with only a few existing in captivity. Others still exist in the wild, but in such small numbers that the current course leads directly to extinction.
For such animals, the hope is that programs at St. Catherine’s and elsewhere--slow and painstaking as they are--will replenish the species and allow the animals to return gradually to their natural habitats.
It has worked for the Arabian oryx. Through a similar program at the San Diego Zoo, a small herd of oryx, at one point nonexistent in the wild, was returned to the desert sultanate of Oman. That herd is now into its second generation and surviving nicely.
“The Arabian oryx is a real success story,” said John Iaderosa, associate curator of the St. Catherine’s wildlife center.
But the big problem is finding a natural habitat.
‘Too Many People’
Most of these animals are endangered because their habitat is being destroyed, either by urban development or hunters who seek rare hides or feathers. The problem, Conway said, is “too many people.”
“Humans are no longer just a species,” Conway said. “They’re a catastrophe. The great extinction of dinosaurs is not as violent as the extinction that is occurring with wild animals today all over the world.
“What St. Catherine’s is trying to do is make a little headway in saving some of the fragments of nature, so that when the human tidal wave begins to come to its senses and gets down to a few ripples, there will be something left.”
The hard-biting gnats inhabiting St. Catherine’s are more of a threat to people than most of the wild animals, although the island caretakers occasionally must dispatch one of the native wild pigs that wander the island.
On a driving tour of the island, a garter snake glides in front of the Jeep and wild turkeys flee from intruders and bound deeper into the forest.
The lemurs--small monkey-like creatures with pointy snouts, soft fur and long tails that are from Madagascar and other East Indian islands--are participants in sort of a halfway-house project on St. Catherine’s designed to see how the animals react to fending for themselves.
The lemurs, bearing such names as Romeo, Falstaff and those of other Shakespearean characters, were all born in captivity. After a period of confinement, the lemurs were released more than a year ago. Although the animals must gather some of their food, a shelter was constructed for them and part of their diet is provided by the caretakers.
Couldn’t Climb Trees
“When we let them loose, they couldn’t even climb a large tree,” said Keith-Lucas. “But they’ve gotten better.”
“There’s a big myth about zoo animals that they want to get out. Well, they don’t,” Iaderosa said.
Although they own their freedom and have adapted gradually to the surroundings, the seven lemurs rarely wander far from the safety of the shelter and hardly pay humans a second glance. Curious lemurs recently peered through the windows of the Gwinnett house to watch humans attending a conference--on lemurs.
Researchers hope that the babies of this and new lemur troupes will be more comfortable in the wild.
While working to save the animals, Conway said zoologists must also address the bigger dilemma of changing human attitudes.
“There’s an enormous problem of public education,” Conway said. “There’s a real need to affect people’s value systems. We have to think about our relationship with other creatures. We have to have the kind of ethical value systems that allows people to think of the future. That’s not a common thing. In fact, it’s a very difficult thing.”