The wild goats of San Clemente Island are playing a numbers game with U.S. Navy biologists and a civilian animal rights organization--and the little beasts seem to be winning.
"We were thinking there were only about 500 or at the most 700 of them left after a capture program ended temporarily last fall," said Ken Mitchell, a spokesman for the Navy, which owns the island 60 miles off San Diego.
"But when capturing resumed . . . 879 have been caught, and there still are some out there."
Mitchell said the Fund for Animals, an international animal rights group, will be allowed to resume its rescue operation Jan. 17 through 21, a period when the island is not being used for Navy or Marine shelling or bombardment practice.
The wild goats, which at one time numbered in the thousands, were ordered destroyed several years ago when biologists determined that they were ruining the habitats of several endangered species of birds and animals by chewing up wild grasses.
At first, the Navy planned to slaughter the animals by gunfire. However, under pressure from the Fund for Animals and other organizations, the Navy relented and permitted a series of rescue operations. In the most successful of these, the goats were snared in nets dropped from a low-flying helicopter.
"We've gotten 3,500 in the last three years," said attorney Dana Cole, a spokesman for the fund. "The Navy has cooperated by letting us work on a sort of piece-meal basis during times when the island was not being used for military purposes."
Cole added that the captured animals are brought to the mainland on barges and transported to facilities at Ramona in San Diego County, Cool in Northern California and the Black Beauty Ranch near Tyler, Tex., where they are offered for adoption.
"We now think there are 200 or 300 (goats) left and, speaking for an animal rights organization that deplores killing, we feel comfortable that if we can't get any more this weekend, hunters won't be able to find them either," he said.
Cole was referring to the possibility that the Navy might resume its original plan to shoot any remaining goats after the rescue work is suspended. But Mitchell said Navy officials "don't have a shooting plan. It's an option, but the fund's capture procedure seems pretty successful."