In the interior of St. Catherines Island, deer roam freely and wild hogs jog playfully throughout the woods. Suddenly, in the distance you hear a sound definitely not native to the area.
A group of ring-tailed lemurs hang from the trees or a small herd of African Jackson hartebeest prance by. You might even glimpse an exotic great hornbill bird. You’re in the sanctuary of St. Catherines Wildlife Survival Center.
When Lifesaver candy creator John Edward Noble purchased the island in 1943, he brought a herd of Angus cattle and allowed them to graze the fields once used to grow corn, rice and cotton.
After Noble died in 1958 his foundation worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society to turn part of the island into a research and breeding station for rare mammals and birds.
The St. Catherines Island Wildlife Survival Center is now a last resort for endangered species of birds and animals, some on the brink of extinction.
Zoologist Debbie Belgio said, "We have three areas of exotics. The Asian hornbills, primates which are the ring-tailed lemurs and the hoof stock animals like antelopes and zebras. All the animals on the island are endangered animals."
Belgio said during the 1980s an array of animals, from cattle to kangaroos, could be found on the island. Since then the WCS reorganized resources and moved some of the animals.
The center is accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and Belgio said it is governed by the Species Survival Programs developed by both the WCS and the AZA to preserve animals through breeding management in zoos and aquariums.
Most of the endangered species on the island got on the list because of deforestation or overhunting in their native lands.
Belgio was mixing up a concoction of hard boiled eggs, fruit, cooked sweet potatoes and a protein supplement.
"That is the Asian hornbill diet," she said filling bowls. "We have four species of Hornbills and these guys are so intelligent, yet they are so bizarre. They are all cavity nesters and they all have this thing on the top of their bill called a casque. It’s a carotene substance. A formation that is different according to their species."
Belgio said the hornbills are fun to care for.
"They are endangered in their native land due to deforestation, hunting and some are kept as pets," she said. "Certain indigenous groups use the feathers and certain body parts are used in ceremonial tribal customs and some are eaten."
Belgio said for a while WCS would collect feathers that naturally came off the birds in programs around the world, wash them and send them to the society’s flagship zoo in the Bronx, N.Y.
"Zoos from all over the country were doing that," she said. "Then they would time shipments of cleaned feathers to coincide with different festivals. With that we might have saved a few birds that would have been killed instead."
Carefully placing bowls of food in each cage she said, "When nesting, the female will enclose herself in a tree cavity for three months," she said. "She uses saliva, feces and food item substrates and she makes this hard cover. She only leaves a slit open to allow the male to feed her. When she goes in there she stays there for three months. She stays in there lays her eggs and incubates her eggs."
The center uses old whiskey barrels to simulate tree cavities.
"The hornbills breed really well here because they are not on display and there are no people coming through here all the time to see them," Holly Marisco, wildlife intern, said.
"Like most birds they mate for life," Belgio said as she walked toward Joe, a 40-year-old great hornbill. Joe’s mate, Josephine is 61.
A hornbill’s normal lifespan is 20-30 years in the wild.
"The aceros and the buceros families of hornbills will be extinct within our lifetime," Belgio said. "How sad is that?"
In another section of the island, Belgio packed a special treat to bring a group of free-ranging ring-tailed lemurs up close.
"There are currently 32 species of living lemurs, a lot are extinct now," she said. "They are primates but they evolve different and they are all from the island of Madagascar off the east coast of Africa."
While some lemurs were relocated to zoos in the past year, St. Catherines still boasts a thriving population of the ring-tails.
"It turns out that it’s a really great place to study their behaviors in a free-ranging situation and see how they interact socially," Belgio said. "Researchers can come here and study what is, for the most part, the natural behavior of these animals."
Parking the truck, Belgio got out and unpacked the treats. The tree limbs swayed and a chimp-like chirp could be heard. Suddenly they leapt to the ground. The mama lemurs had babies clinging to their backs or bellies.
"The adults have colored collars and radio collars that have certain frequencies," she explained. "That way if they leave the group we can track them. Normally there is one dominate male that will mate with the majority of the females. The cool thing about lemurs is that they are a matriarchal society."
Belgio said they are gathered once a year for physicals and given flea and tick preventatives, other than that they are free to roam.
The lemurs are sensitive to colder temperatures so the staff monitors the weather during the winter. If needed the three groups of lemurs on the island heated shelters.
"We have to be responsible and make sure they don’t get frostbite so we do interfere in that way and also if there any injuries," she said.
Leaving the lemurs, Marisco, who primarily cares for the hoof stock, drove to the fenced section containing the antelopes. She points to a six-week-old hartebeest calf.
"We have three different species of antelope and one species of zebras," she said.
Marisco said she worked in Costa Rica with turtles before coming to St. Catherines. She said the island also has a sea turtle conservation program, but she wanted to work with other animals.
"I was definitely interested in working with animals and wanted to gain some experience and see if this was the correct career path for me," she said. "I really enjoy it and I think I have a sixth or seventh sense for dealing with animals."
After touring the hoof stock she pointed out the variety of cranes and capped off the tour by featuring a bald eagle being rehabilitated from a wing injury.
"This is such a special place," Belgio said.