The sounds of a mass execution rattled the rugged canyons of Santa Catalina Island this week, the whoop-whoop-whoop of a low-flying helicopter and the booming echoes of gunfire.
For three days, sharpshooters leaned out of the chopper and, wielding shotguns, killed hundreds of hardy goats and prolific pigs.
When the shooting was done, the animals were left where they dropped--left to rot in the sun.
The hunt marked the latest in a series of aerial shootings authorized in recent years by the conservancy charged with restoring the island, 22 miles off the Southern California coast, to its natural condition.
It also provides a classic example of the hard choices confronting wildlife experts presented with the ultimate question: Who should survive?
Should it be goats and pigs? Or the island's native foxes, lizards and trees?
The goats have been on the island since the 1820s, the pigs since the 1930s. Whose history counts more?
The Catalina Island Conservancy says the helicopter hunt, which took place Monday through Wednesday, is a necessary and effective way to protect the native animal and plant life. Conservancy officials also insist that it's humane. The goats and pigs die a quick death, biologists say, and their carcasses decompose naturally.
Animal rights groups, however, are outraged, insisting that even goats and pigs don't deserve to be--as they term it--assassinated.
"I hate the whole thing to begin with," said Cleveland Amory, the noted author and president of the New York-based Fund for Animals. "But my real objection of course is that doing it by helicopter is so damn cruel. It's not effective. And the animals die lingering deaths."
Not true on any count, responded David Garcelon, the wildlife biologist hired to cull the goat and pig herds. Nevertheless, Garcelon, president of the Arcata, Calif.-based Institute for Wildlife Studies, called the hunt a "poignant problem," particularly for a biologist trained to save animals, not destroy them.
"I actually lecture on this at Humboldt State," he said, "to point out to students that it's not always Marlin Perkins out there--going out, hugging a fawn and releasing it into the wild.
"We've got a situation here where humans released these animals in years prior and it wasn't a good choice."
The island's native wildlife includes eagles as well as species found nowhere else, including a fox, a shrew and an ironwood tree.
The first goats were brought over by Spanish missionaries.
Pigs were imported to the island to root out snakes.
The goats in particular have thrived. They happily eat just about anything that grows.
In the 1970s, the owners of the island, the Wrigley family of chewing gum fame, created the conservancy and donated most of Catalina, about 88%, to the nonprofit organization. The conservancy's mandate was to restore the 21-mile-long island to its natural state.
By then, the pigs and goats were on the verge of wiping out the native wildlife, according to Bill Bushing, the conservancy's vice president for science, education and ecological restoration.
Goat trails crisscrossed the mountainsides, he said. Entire groves of ironwood and elderberry were disappearing. Without vegetation, vast hillsides were being washed away.
Sport hunting was stepped up, Bushing said. The conservancy also created a wild plant nursery and hired an expert staff to restore the island flora.
The vast majority of the goats and pigs carried on, munching away.
So, in the late 1980s, the conservancy--then led by Doug Propst, who has since retired--decided that the feral animals had to be eliminated.
The killings began in 1989, approved by the state Fish and Game Department. Several major environmental groups have since given their approval to the hunts.
The scale of the task has been immense. A guess in 1990 was that there were perhaps 500 goats on the west side of the island--that is, west from the isthmus at Two Harbors. It turned out, Garcelon said, there were 4,000 goats--crammed into 7,000 acres.
After 10 years of shooting, the goats and pigs are all but gone from the west side of the island. That side has since been fenced off; ironwood seedlings and saplings have reappeared.
"It's astounding," Bushing said. "I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime."
To the east, in the mountains and canyons near Avalon, perhaps 1,000 goats and 3,000 pigs remain, Garcelon said.
On both sides of the island, tracking and trapping animals has remained a year-round activity.
The helicopter hunts occur perhaps twice a year, Bushing said.
A chopper flies a couple of hundred feet up in search of pigs or goats. Then, said Garcelon, "we try to move the animals into the open where we can get a good shot."
The helicopter slides down to about 20 yards off the ground, and two sharpshooters--one in the passenger side seat, another in the cabin immediately behind the pilot--fire away, using 12-gauge shotguns and shells with fairly large shot called zero-zero buck.