Sleeping, pregnant San Clemente Island Goat

I’ve written on this topic before, but I just can’t get it out of my head.

And so, a man named Salvador Ramirez brought a small herd of goats from Santa Catalina Island where he was to San Clemente Island where he went to live. And so, when Salvador Ramirez left, there were feral goats on the island of San Clemente, the southernmost of the Channel Islands off the coast of California. And so, the goats grew small and nimble, shy and drought-tolerant, through natural selection. And so, these goats ate the flora of the island: unique species of Indian paintbrush and woodland star, bushmallow and wirelettuce and morning glory. And so, the foxes and shrikes endemic to the island began to suffer as the greenery went. And so, the local subspecies of Bewick’s wren, a bird described in 1908 a “very common on all parts of the island,” was gone by the 1940’s, its habitat converted into goat flesh.
And so, the U.S. Navy, having acquired authority over the island, began to trap, and then to shoot, the goats. And so the Friends of Animals took them to court, demanding an injunction and a return to live-trapping. And so, injunctions were granted and lifted, granted and lifted, over the course of more than a decade; during one busy period in 1982, the official stance on killing the goats changed five times in two months. And so, the remaining goats ate more and bred more and carried more babies to term, refilling the space made by their lost comrades. And so, it was not until April 1991 that the last goat on San Clemente was shot, the final wary herds done in by grad students with sniper rifles and tame Judas goats with radio collars.
And so, the San Clemente Island goats who were live-trapped, now living on the mainland, were the last San Clemente Island goats. And so, most had been neutered, adopted out to soft-hearted landowners as odd pets, conversation pieces. And so, as they began to receive veterinary attention, some odd facts about the goats emerged: they were not related, as presumed, to the Spanish goats of the American southwest. No wait, they were, but they had experienced so much genetic drift and selective pressure that they now constituted a unique breed in their own right. Also, they were infested by a species of ear mite unknown to science.
And so, a breed association formed to preserve these goats. (No such association was formed on behalf of the ear mites.) And so, on behalf of the breed, animals went unneutered (an animal welfare faux pas) and individuals who couldn’t be tamed were allowed to roam feral on their owners’ farms (an environmentalist no-no) and their potential as meat animals was taste-tested and they were even cross-bred to impart their hardy but docile genes to other, more common types. And so, great pragmatism enveloped the fate of the San Clemente Island goats, which only seems appropriate when one considers that they exist because of the pragmatic actions of Salvador Ramirez and natural selection.
And so, back on the island, the foxes recovered so much faster than the shrikes that they themselves had to be controlled, at least until golden eagles showed up and took over the island (they’d previously been driven off by bald eagles until the bald eagle population crashed in the wake of DDT) and started picking off the foxes. The Indian paintbrush and the morning glory are doing much better. The wren remains gone, forever.

Photo: / CC BY 2.0

Written by Carrie
Carrie Laben, after years of writing and birding in New York, moved to Montana to pursue her two great passions more effectively. She recently graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Montana in Missoula. When she is not cranking out essays and speculative fiction stories, or wandering around on mountains failing to see the birds she is looking for, she is likely to be drinking one of the many fine local microbrews or attending a potluck with something from the local farmer’s market in hand. On Mondays from 3 to 3:30 Mountain Time you can find her answering questions about birds on live chat at