After five years of preparation, seven months of work and $3 million in funding, 52 feral cats have been relocated from San Nicolas Island to a new home on the mainland.
The feral cat removal project began in 2004 under the direction of the Montrose Settlements Restoration Program in order to correct negative shifts in the ecosystem caused by the felines. The island’s cat population — descendants of cats brought to San Nicolas in the 1950s to control vermin — became less domesticated over time, slowly killing off the native bird and fish population.
According to Annie Little, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Wildlife Biologist working for the MSRP, the cats’ safety was a primary concern in the evacuation process.
“One of the stipulations we had when coming up with this plan was to make sure the cats were comfortable and well cared for once they were off-island,” Little said. “We didn’t just remove them and kill them or anything. We made sure they had a nice place to go to live out their lives.”
In addition to protecting the cats from harm in the relocation process, the project had to be wary of harming the island’s native fox population. To do so, padded leg hold traps with a scent designed to deter the foxes were used, and veterinarians were present on the island during the trapping process, which was supervised by the Humane Society.
Additionally, the MSRP avoided trapping during the foxes’ breeding season.
“We decided it was best not to trap any cats during that time for fear that pregnant foxes would get caught in the traps,” Little said.
Once the cats were successfully trapped, they were transported to a newly constructed habitat at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Ramona, Calif.
“We made sure the place was as comfortable as possible for the cats when they got here,” Kim Dimiko of the center said. “It has been made to simulate the San Nicolas Island from which they came, and we are glad to report that the cats are doing very well in their new home.”
Dimiko said the habitat is made up of four compartments separated by fencing, each capable of housing up to 25 cats. Within the enclosure, designers placed shrubs and rocks for the cats to interact with and individual cubbies for the cats to hide in.
The cats were neutered and tested for diseases upon arrival. Some of the cats were discovered to be pregnant and have since delivered kittens.
“We had three cats that had kittens,” Dimiko said. “We have put them up for adoption and made sure they were domesticated so they could be cared for by families.”
Community members have debated the treatment of the cats since the project began.
“I’m glad to hear that the cats are doing well,” Jessica Perez, a first-year biology major and Santa Barbara native, said. “I heard about what was happening a while back, and it worried me a little bit, but it sounds like the cats are doing well, and I wish them the best.”
Not all the cats are off the island yet — one was recently spotted on a camera monitor — and Little confirmed that a few cats are still wandering the area.
“It’s been a long effort,” Little said. “There are still a few more out there, but we are confident we will be able to get them in the time required.”
The capture of the remaining cats will wait until the beginning of June in order to avoid fox breeding season.