The special cats of San Nicolas Island and the special person who looks after them

San Nicolas Island is one of California’s Channel Islands which are off the coast of southern California. San Nicolas is a pretty barren 14,000-acre island with an airfield because it’s been owned by the U.S. Navy since the 1950s. U.S. Navy personnel brought cats onto the island, and I guess some of them became semi-feral and procreated. Over time there were 62 cats on the island.

Location of San Nicolas Island
Location of San Nicolas Island. Map: Wikipedia and marked up.
Two useful tags. Click either to see the articles: Toxic to cats | Dangers to cats
San Nicolas Island
San Nicolas Island. Image as per credit.

It was decided that they should be removed because of the threat they posed to the wildlife of the island. Also, they were in direct competition with the island foxes which are a federally protected species.

It was also decided that the 62 trapped San Nicolas Island cats would be taken to the San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife campus in Ramona, which is north of San Diego and San Diego is around 200 km from San Nicolas Island. It seems that the San Diego campus was the nearest or most suitable place to rehome the cats. The cats were placed in a custom-built 4,000 square-foot enclosure at the facility.

The campus director, Andy Blue, has made some interesting comments about the cats. He said that they are neither feral nor domestic, but they act like feral cats. They appear to be a very close-knit group because when one is removed from the group, they become upset and don’t eat. But they have settled in well perhaps largely because they are so well cared for.

He claims that they have evolved into their own unique breed. San Nicolas Island has no trees but there are bushes and because of this Mr Blue claims that the cats developed shorter legs and tails and rounded bodies which allows them to burrow into the ground for shelter.

Maribel Ramirez

Maribel Ramirez at the Humane Soc campus feeding the San Nicolas Island cats
Maribel Ramirez at the Humane Soc campus feeding the San Nicolas Island cats. Image: San Diego Humane Society Ramona Campus.

Volunteer Maribel Ramirez looks after the cats, and she says that they are “a feline version of a corgi”. She is the special lady I want to talk about looking after these special, unique cats. She wanted to be a marine biologist but didn’t quite make her dreams come true and now she’s retired and a volunteer at the campus and she is the primary caregiver for the San Nicolas Island cats.

In caring for them she finds a purpose to her life, and she is regarded as ‘a treasure’ by Andy Blue. He said: “You can tell it’s her passion. She is so proud of what she does; she’s just a wonderful asset”.

Some of the San Nicolas Island cats at the San Diego Humane Soc. Ramona campus near San Diego named by Maribel Ramirez their volunteer caregiver
Some of the San Nicolas Island cats at the San Diego Humane Soc. Ramona campus near San Diego named by Maribel Ramirez their volunteer caregiver. Image: San Diego Humane Society Ramona campus.

Mr Blue says that Ramirez visits each cat and knows everything about them. He said: “I see her nearly every day that she is here. She comes in early, interacts with the cats at their enclosure and then checks in with us, myself and the other wildlife care specialists, afterwards. And she often comes back in the afternoons and spends time with us as well. She is not only concerned about the animals, but the staff, and the campus as a whole. It sounds cliché, but we are truly so lucky to have her.”

Of the 62 cats brought from the island there were ten kittens, and they were quickly adopted. They managed to adopt out about a dozen adults, and they wanted to socialise the remaining cats and then also adopt them out too. However, they realised that when they tried to rehome some cats the other cats in the colony became stressed.

Ramirez said: “Even though the cats became social with the caretakers, removing any of them from the group caused them stress. Even now when we take them to the medical center, we keep it to as short an amount of time as possible, because the separated cat will totally shut down, refusing to eat or drink.”

She loves it when she meets them in the morning. She said: “The morning meet and greet when all the cats come up to say good morning, really makes my day.”

The cats and their caregiver have settled into a nice routine. As usual the cats are training the caregiver and Ramirez is totally happy with that.

Ramirez is a remarkable cat caregiver and her passion for the cat is very obvious. She describes their individual personalities. And she says that many of the cats don’t meow like typical domestic cats. For example, one of her cats, Sybil (she has names from them all), grunts if she walks too close to her and Nick opens his mouth but doesn’t make any sounds.

One of the cats, Bastet, named after the ancient Egyptian God because of her slender Egyptian features, keeps a lookout for the rest of the group and when something happens, she “lets the other cats know with a yell that would literally wake the dead”, Ramirez said.

The photographs show us that the cats are very similar in appearance which is what you’d expect on an island where the cats become inbred. Ramirez says that their immune systems are not quite as good as they should be because of inbreeding (inbreeding depression). She also said that in many of the cats, one kidney is larger than the other.

And all the cats who have died at the facility have passed because of illness. The oldest resident cat is 17 years of age but most of them have died at a much younger age.

Ramirez promised her cats that she would look after them for as long as she can. She wants to make sure “they are loved until the end”. She plans to live longer than any of the San Nicolas Island cats.

There will be a memorial garden for the ones that have passed, and Ramirez said that she wants someone to make the plaques! She’s definitely in charge and she is doing a great job.

My thanks to the Ramona Sentinel.

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Useful tag. Click to see the articles: Cat behavior

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