[Vision2020] Caturday (September 17, 2022)
thansen at moscow.com
Sat Sep 17 05:27:45 PDT 2022
Meet Marbel Ramirez, a self-described "crazy cat lady". She's a caretaker for former San Nicolas Island cats & has provided more than 12,000 volunteer hours of service to the aging semi-feral cats since 2013. We welcome her & her feline family to Caturday.
Courtesy of the San Diego Union Tribune at:
Ramona woman forges kinship with San Nicolas Island cats
Although she jokingly refers to herself as a “crazy cat lady,” there’s nothing crazy about Maribel Ramirez — or the cats she lovingly tends.
As caretaker for an aging group of semi-feral cats, Ramirez has found kinship with the animals, friendship with fellow animal lovers and respect from the staff with the San Diego Humane Society’s Project Wildlife campus in Ramona.
A volunteer for the past several years, Ramirez believes her role as the primary caregiver for the San Nicolas Island cats residing at the campus gives her life meaning.
“As you retire and get older, you become less significant in the world and can be overlooked. But the cats totally give me purpose,” she said.
Ramirez had not worked with any feral cats before volunteering at the facility. She said she originally wanted to become a marine biologist, but instead, retired after working in various school district positions for close to 29 years.
Ramirez has been working with the cats continuously since 2019, after moving back to Ramona that year. Divorced with three adult children, she said a friend encouraged her to help out at the campus.
She has provided more than 12,000 volunteer hours of service to the cats since 2013, including more than 700 volunteer hours this year.
“You can tell it’s her passion. She is so proud of what she does; she’s just a wonderful asset,” said Andy Blue, campus director.
Blue said Ramirez visits with each cat and knows everything about them.
“I see her nearly every day that she is here. She comes in early, interacts with the cats at their enclosure and then checks in with us, myself and the other wildlife care specialists, afterwards,” Blue said. “And she often comes back in the afternoons and spends time with us as well.”
Ramirez cares about much more than just the cats.
“She is not only concerned about the animals, but the staff, and the campus as a whole,” he said. “It sounds cliché, but we are truly so lucky to have her.”
The San Nicolas Island cats made international headlines when they were first brought to Ramona back in 2012.
The island is the outermost of California’s Channel Islands. Cats had been living wild on the U.S. Navy-owned island since at least the 1950s, having descended from pets and rodent-control felines brought over by naval personnel.
But over time, officials of the Navy-owned island determined the cats needed to go. Studies revealed they were decimating the land and seabirds, island night lizards and numerous other small animals.
The felines were also in direct competition with the endemic island foxes — a federally protected species — for both prey and denning sites.
After five years of planning, the cat eradication project began in June 2009. It took three years for officials to find, trap and remove all 60-plus cats off the island, which totals more than 14,000 acres.
At the time, the Ramona campus was known as the Fund for Animals Wildlife Center. The group built a 4,000-square-foot enclosure specifically for the incoming ferals.
“Those particular cats were there because there was nowhere else for them to go,” Ramirez said.
Compared to domestic cats, the San Nicolas Island cats were different in both appearance and temperament.
“The cats are technically neither feral nor domestic, but they were all feral acting when they first arrived,” Blue said.
The cats had also evolved into their own unique breed. As the island has no trees, the felines developed shorter legs and tails and round bodies, allowing them to burrow into the ground for shelter. Ramirez describes them as “a feline version of a corgi.”
Of the 62 cats taken from the island and brought to the facility, 10 were kittens, which were quickly adopted. Another dozen or so were also adopted, with the plan for the rest to undergo socialization at the campus.
It didn’t take long, however, for the caretakers to realize that rehoming the remaining cats was causing major issues for the colony.
“Even though the cats became social with the caretakers, removing any of them from the group caused them stress,” Ramirez said. “Even now when we take them to the medical center, we keep it to as short an amount of time as possible, because the separated cat will totally shut down, refusing to eat or drink.”
The cats have come a long way from having no previous desire to be with humans. Onsite six days a week, Ramirez is meticulous in their care.
“The morning meet and greet, when all the cats come up to say good morning, really makes my day,” she said.
The cats and their caregiver have settled into a comfortable routine. After mutual greetings, massages are given to each cat that wants one. Then meals, medications and supplements are passed out, with each cat being enticed by a special gourmet plate of their favorite goodies.
Cleaning, recording health changes and making sure new volunteers are properly trained is also part of Ramirez’s duties.
Enrichment activities, such as feather toys and chasing toy mice on the familiar string and wand games, are also part of the day.
“They’re really good at training us,” she said with a laugh. “They train us to do things the way they like them, and we keep repeating it, so they give us positive feedback.”
Blue believes it’s more than luck that allows the cats to do so well under her care.
“Ramirez is just a really, really good animal person. She respects them and lets them come to her. It’s hard to explain the level of care from someone that dedicates that much time to them,” Blue said.
Her passion for the cats is evident when she describes their individual personalities.
She said many of the cats don’t meow like typical domestic felines.
“Sybil just grunts; for example, if you walk too close to her, she grunts,” she said. “Nick’s mouth moves, but you don’t hear any sounds.”
Meanwhile, Bastet, a shorthaired brown tabby with slender, Egyptian features is “always on alert, constantly watching what is going on. And when something is happening, she lets the other cats know with a yowl that would literally wake the dead,” Ramirez said.
She described Candy, a brownish tabby, as the only longhaired cat left in the group. Her chosen activity is grooming the others, especially their eyes.
Dark tabby Nick is the “naughty boy on the play yard.
“Everybody falls in love with Nick. He likes people. He will walk up to another kitty, swear at it and smack it just to get attention and play,” she said.
With the exception of Nick’s antics, she said the island cats don’t get into typical cat squabbles.
“They don’t fight amongst themselves,” she said. “They literally use their paws and box with each other. I’ve never seen them fight, not once.”
Because of the inbreeding among the cats, she said caretakers use extra caution when working with them and they often have shorter lifespans.
“Their immune systems aren’t as good as they should be. And in many of them, one kidney is larger than the other, for example,” she said.
Only nine of the original 42 cats that were at the facility when Ramirez first started remain. All the cats who died did so from illness, not age.
“Our oldest resident is now 17, which is pretty impressive considering how many of the cats passed away at a much younger age,” she said.
But for Ramirez, the island cats are the ultimate survivors.
“They’ve come into an environment in Ramona totally different from anything they’ve ever had on the island. They had no clue what we wanted from them in the beginning. I think they’ve made the best of what they were given,” she said.
She plans to continue her volunteer work as long as the cats are around.
“I promised them I would stay until whoever goes first — I want to make sure they are loved until the end,” she said.
Although the Ramona campus includes nine full-time wildlife care specialists, Blue said the facility would not be able to operate without such dedicated volunteers.
“We have volunteers that come to the campus from as far away as Pacific Beach and La Mesa, and a lot of us that work here live out of town. We would love to have more locals involved,” he said.
Volunteers are needed in all areas, he said, and the work can be done on a regular or special project basis.
At least one special project deals with the San Nicolas Island cats.
“We are making a memorial garden for the animals that have passed, and we could use someone to make the plaques,” Ramirez said of the project that is obviously close to her heart.
Photos . . .
“Caturday” by Linus Petit
Seeya 'round town, Moscow, because . . .
"Moscow Cares" (the most fun you can have with your pants on)
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