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Rare Animals Get Rest, Relaxation and Procreation at Island Hideaway

November 16, 1986|BILL LOHMANN | United Press International

ST. CATHERINE'S ISLAND, Ga. — Rare Arabian oryx roam nonchalantly across a forest clearing with their magnificent spiral horns held high, while a herd of Grevy zebras kicks up some dust in the next meadow.

Not far away, playful lemurs scamper through the trees.

For someone to stumble unwittingly into this setting, it looks for all the world like a child's dream of Africa, where strange and wonderful creatures--not humans--run the land.

But this is not even another continent. It is the New York Zoological Society's sanctuary for endangered species on St. Catherine's Island, a piney piece of land 30 miles south of Savannah where the natives--run-of-the-mill animals such as raccoons, alligators and white-tail deer--are thoroughly befuddled by their peculiar neighbors.

"The other animals don't seem to know what to make of them," said Tim Keith-Lucas, a University of the South professor who is studying lemurs.

Remote Place

There are other wildlife survival centers around the nation where breeding programs are developed for endangered species--many zoos have such programs--but none is more remote than this one.

St. Catherine's is six miles from the bustle of the mainland, separated by sawgrass marshes and the Intracoastal Waterway. The only way to reach the island is by boat.

Although something as simple as going to the store for bread and milk is a roundabout task for the handful of people who live and work on the island and transporting animals can be an unspeakable ordeal, the privacy and lack of public disturbance make this sanctuary unique and effective.

Curious boaters occasionally run ashore on the 11-mile-long island's deserted beaches, but for the most part the animals live in peace and the curators work in quiet.

"It seems sort of appropriate to help endangered species here because this island itself is sort of an endangered species," said Royce Hayes, superintendent of the island and one of a handful of people who actually live on it. "Plus the fact we aren't bothered by people driving up on Sunday afternoon to see the animals like you would be on the mainland."

The island itself has a colorful history.

Guale Indians were the earliest inhabitants, and Spanish, French and English explorers settled there from time to time. Researchers believe the island is the site of the northernmost Spanish mission on the Atlantic coast.

A later resident was Button Gwinnett, a signer of the Declaration of Independence who otherwise put pen to paper so infrequently that his signature has become a valuable collector's item.

Refuge for Freed Slaves

After the Civil War, a settler named Tunis Campbell made the island a refuge for freed Southern blacks.

St. Catherine's has become a haven for archeologists from the American Museum of Natural History, and they have unearthed human bones, pottery chips, Christian medallions and other artifacts--some dating back to 2000 BC.

Ruins of a 16th-Century mission have been uncovered--a church, barracks and well--and jagged walls of centuries-old huts made of tabby, an adobe-like substance of oyster shell and sand, still link St. Catherine's to the past.

The island remains in a near-pristine state. There are only a handful of buildings, including Gwinnett's restored plantation house and small cabins for visiting researchers. Telephones reached St. Catherine's two years ago.

Eisenhower Visited

St. Catherine's was bought and sold several times until it was purchased in 1943 by Edward John Noble, who built his fortune on candy and communications. Noble, who used the island to entertain friends and celebrities, including President Dwight D. Eisenhower, died in 1958. St. Catherine's became the property of the Noble Foundation.

In the late 1960s, Frank Larkin, a trustee of the Noble Foundation and Noble's son-in-law, interested the Bronx Zoo in experimenting with the island as a refuge, and the first animals were brought there in 1974.

Today more than two dozen endangered species--including giant Seychelles Islands tortoises, brilliantly colored Pesquet's parrots from New Guinea and Jackson hartebeests from Africa--are on St. Catherine's. The island's projects are supported by a spinoff of the Noble Foundation and the New York Zoological Society, with the help of participating zoos and special grants.

"What we're trying to do at St. Catherine's is pioneer some of the techniques of long-term management of small populations of wild creatures," said William Conway, director of the New York Zoological Society.

Several other zoological societies contribute animals to the program. They are cared for, studied and encouraged to breed in simulated natural surroundings--almost like a giant zoo without the camera-toting tourists.

Most of the endangered species are contained--birds in long cages filled with plants and tree branches, and larger animals in huge fenced pastures. The lemurs are the only exception, with the run of the island.

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