Chelsea, a feral cat, relaxes under the shade of a bush as she and other feral cats from San Nicholas Island live in a newly built habitat at the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona on Tuesday.
Dozens of feral cats that once appeared doomed to be euthanized have a new home in Ramona after being rescued from one of the Channel Islands off Ventura County.
Shelters euthanize about half of the 8 million cats they take in annually and usually have no resources to handle the hundreds of thousands of feral cats that roam in the wild, said Betsy McFarland, senior director of companion animals for the Humane Society of the United States. However, the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center in Ramona has made an exception for 54 feral felines taken from San Nicolas Island.
Wildlife officials and the U.S. Navy, which owns the island, recently decided to remove the cats to improve the nesting success of seabirds that increasingly use the islands as a refuge.
After learning the cats may be euthanized, the Humane Society began working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, California Department of Fish and Game and the Navy on an alternative to killing the cats.
"We wanted the island to have a safe environment for all those native creatures while still having a good outcome for the cats," McFarland said.
The Humane Society supports programs that catch, spay and re-release feral cats, but that was not an option at San Nicholas, which along with San Clemente Island is one of two Channel Islands owned by the Navy.
In an unusual step, the Humane Society agreed to find a permanent home for the feral cats, which probably will never be adopted because they grew up wild.
The Web site DoGreatGood.com, which raises funds for charities helping animals and other causes, provided more than $100,000 to build a habitat at the Ramona center, which focuses on rehabilitating and re-releasing injured local wildlife.
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Officer Annie Little said contracted workers in June began capturing the cats with padded leg-hold traps, which were used because the cats would not go into box traps.
"They were very fractious, very ungrateful guests," said Holly Hazard, chief innovations officer for the Humane Society.
Since their arrival, however, some of the cats have become surprisingly comfortable with people and are even allowing workers at the center to pet them.
"There's a couple that are starting to warm up," McFarland said.
Some of the cats were pregnant when captured, and the 54 felines include 18 kittens that may be suitable for adoption, officials at the center said.
Nobody is certain how the cats first got on San Nicolas Island, but they may have first been introduced by shepherds in the early 1900s, Little said. The recent population probably came from Navy personnel who brought the cats to the islands in the 1950s and 1960s, she said.
Cats trapped at the island were flown directly to the Ramona Airport on a small chartered plane, Little said. The majority of the population probably has been captured, but trapping will continue until February, which is the start of the breeding season for foxes on the island, she said.