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  • Writer's pictureCheryl Anne Stapp

Island Goats

There were no animals of any kind on the rocky island when explorer Sebastian Vizcaino stopped there in 1602, naming it Santa Catalina in honor of Saint Catherine. So where did the island’s wild goat herds—considered so problematic by the 20th century, originally come from? Some 167 years after Vizcaino, a group of Spanish priests arrived on the mainland to colonize California, bringing a variety of livestock up from Mexico with them. Historians of the period believe that the priests, while spreading the gospel in 1827, took a few goats to Catalina as another food source for the Tongva Indians who had fished in its coves for eons.

During California’s first heady years of statehood, new stories circulated to explain the goats’ presence on a landform devoid of permanent human habitation. One tale claimed that explorer George Vancouver had put the first goats on the island in 1793, to provide food for future shipwrecked sailors. Later, a rumor falsely credited Augustus W. Timms, a colorful sea captain operating out of San Pedro in the 1850s, with taking the first goats to Catalina. Other legends told of pirates, smugglers, and whaling ships.

Whoever left them there, the goats stayed and multiplied, in a variety of colors: snow white, coal black, brown, yellow, buff, terra-cotta. There were striped goats, spotted goats, and tri-colored goats. Both males and females had magnificent horns, which grew backward from a broad base at the animal’s head and gradually tapered to a sharp point at the ends, which could measure up to an impressive thirty inches from tip to tip. For decades, they mostly had Santa Catalina to themselves.

Though officially a part of the United States after 1848, Catalina Island was then (and still is) owned by private interests. Prominent Santa Barbara resident Jose Maria Covarrubias was the owner in early 1853, when an article in a San Francisco newspaper reported that the goat population had reached 20,000. In the spring of that year, a group of businessmen purchased the 20,000 animals from Covarrubias at $4 a head, planning to transport them to the mainland where they would be butchered and sold as a dietary alternate to other meats.

But the goats, whose main habitat was in the island’s precipitous canyons, proved difficult to capture. By August 6 the Los Angeles Star reported that only 6,000 animals had disembarked at San Pedro. “All the goats on the island worth taking off,” said the entrepreneurs, who announced they would abandon the island within the week. In hindsight, it would appear that the numbers on which they had based their venture must have been grossly exaggerated to begin with. The removal of 6,000 goats should have left 14,000 on the island. Yet over the next ten years, estimates of Catalina’s feral goat population ranged wildly from a mere 1,000, to more than 7,000.

Wealthy land baron James Lick purchased Catalina in 1864. For most of the 19th century, efforts to establish human communities on a permanent basis were largely unsuccessful, though a few California ranchers did pasture their sheep and cattle on the island. Sports fishermen began visiting. Game hunters came to bag wild goat trophies for the animals’ spectacular horns, and for their pelts, which sold at twenty-seven cents per pound in 1881. Several idealistic young men from Los Angeles, who saw this as the wholesale slaughter of defenseless animals, sailed to Catalina in June 1883, to form the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Wild Goats. Not surprisingly, nothing changed.

In 1887 real estate developer George Shatto purchased the island from the late James Lick’s estate. He surveyed the bay known as Timm’s Landing, laid out the town of Avalon, built the original Metropole Hotel and a steamship pier, and opened Catalina to tourists in 1888. Three years later, after Shatto defaulted on his loan, the Banning brothers bought the property, developed more facilities, provided glass-bottom boats to tourists, and ran the popular resort from 1892 until a massive fire in 1915 destroyed half of Avalon’s buildings. Chewing gum magnate William Wrigley Jr. bought the island in 1919. He invested millions in needed infrastructure and added attractions such as the Catalina Casino, revitalizing Catalina’s appeal as a getaway destination.

Meanwhile, goat hunting on Catalina continued to be a big recreational business. Sportsmen came from around the world, hired local guides, and thrilled to the chase as the agile creatures leapt from ridge to ridge to escape them. By the mid-20th century, though, ecologists were beginning to worry that the feral goats, which fed on any and all vegetation including grass, cacti, flowers, tree leaves and bark, were damaging the island’s ecosystem. Scientific studies conducted over a period of years resulted in a unanimous recommendation: the feral goats must be eradicated to save the island. Between 1990 and 1994, almost all of them were removed by aerial and ground hunting.

In the fall of 1999, the animal rights group In Defense of Animals enlisted Goats R Us— a family-owned company in the business of providing goats for brush reduction projects—to remove the remaining feral goats from Catalina. Using ropes, radios, and several border collies, a team of experts and volunteers successfully captured more than 120 animals by hand and relocated them to the Goats R Us ranch in Orinda, California.

Today, no feral goats remain on Santa Catalina Island.

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