The uplifting tale of these tiny island foxes, nearly wiped out by disaster

Earth Day began after a catastrophe off California. Leadership and science restored nature—and hope—through years of despair and controversy.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic
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An island fox dozes in the afternoon sun. No bigger than house cats, island foxes live only in the Southern California Channel Islands. They mysteriously began to disappear in the 1990s and became the focus of an intense long-term effort to save them.

Photograph by Melissa Groo, National Geographic

The uplifting tale of these tiny island foxes, nearly wiped out by disaster

Earth Day began after a catastrophe off California. Leadership and science restored nature—and hope—through years of despair and controversy.

In winter calm, sheets of sleek oil neared the beach. From hillsides, the island’s little foxes must have watched, maybe frightened by the stench or by the dying birds. Though the foxes must have been uneasy on this confusing, deadly Southern California day in January 1969, at least they were safe on the hills. Or so it seemed.

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Santa Cruz Island, about four times the size of Manhattan, lies 20 miles off the coast of Southern California. The largest of five islands in Channel Islands National Park, it’s made up of rolling hills, mountains rising to nearly 2,500 feet, and mostly rocky shorelines.

The foxes were watching from a large island called Santa Cruz, as the Santa Barbara oil spill—still the third-largest spill in United States history, which led to the first Earth Day, in 1970—spread three million gallons of oil on the sea and shores. I too watched the oil as if it had nothing to do with me as I drove the mainland coast in my little red Volkswagen to cover campus conflict and civil rights for my college newspaper while friends went off to be wounded or killed in Vietnam. The 1960s were bad times. To me, the oil was just another stain.

But things happened in that dark era that were not dark. Choices made by groups and individuals would, half a century later, lead to a story about those island foxes and some humans who loved them, a story that would look small and sadly familiar at first. But in the end, the story of the foxes would mean the opposite of the familiar tale of the canary in the coal mine, whose death warns of folly and disaster. Because to all of us who wish for better ways to live with this battered planet, those little island foxes are less like dead canaries and more like larks in the morning sun.

THE STORY BEGINS WITH A BOOK, a baby, and a high school girl who talked too much.

The book was Silent Spring, a best-seller from 1962 by Rachel Carson, which planted the seeds of the modern environmental movement with dire predictions of a spring without the songs of birds because of chemicals such as the pesticide DDT.

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A clear-eyed island fox is held by biologist Juliann Schamel before being checked out and vaccinated near a Channel Islands National Park campground on Santa Cruz Island. Fox populations on all five of the park’s islands are regularly monitored through a trapping and vaccination program.

The girl was a Michigan kid named Kate Roney, who got caught chatting in the library and was sent to a class called Man and Nature, where she read Silent Spring and visited national parks. She decided to study biology, because nature needed women too.

The baby was the daughter of a Canadian biologist named Kees Vermeer, who studied bald eagles, which were dying out, as Rachel Carson predicted in Silent Spring. The baby’s name was Lotus, and she was born in British Columbia on the very same week that oil hit the beaches in California.

As Lotus learned to walk, and Kate Roney went to college, and Rachel Carson testified in Congress on behalf of life as she was dying of cancer, the ’60s turned to the ’70s and some big choices came out of the darkness. President Richard Nixon signed the National Environmental Policy Act, Senator Gaylord Nelson created Earth Day, and in 1972, DDT was largely banned.

Then Kate Roney went to Alaska and became a national park policy wonk and a bush pilot. And Lotus Vermeer went with her dad to study birds on chilly mornings in Canada and dreamed of saving sea turtles on warmer sands.

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An island fox is groomed by its mate near a national park campsite on Santa Cruz island. The foxes’ diet includes insects, worms, mice, even ticks.

Before I knew it, we Boomers were not “the kids” anymore, and I was writing environmental stories for National Geographic, and the new generation was coming along. Then, 33 years after the first Earth Day, Lotus Vermeer, with a Ph.D. earned studying sea turtles, arrived in Ventura, California, for a brand-new job trying to restore a huge island she never even knew existed called Santa Cruz.

“There I was,” she told me later, “five-foot-two, 110 pounds, purple pants, ponytail, a fresh-off-the-boat look.” Some of the men who saw her arrive started taking bets about how soon she’d leave.

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Laura Shaskey, head of the Channel Islands National Park fox project, takes notes while biologist Juliann Schamel checks a fox for ticks and assesses its body condition. The mask helps keep the fox calm.

Lotus’s new job was with the nonprofit environmental land management organization called the Nature Conservancy (TNC). She was hired to manage one of the nonprofit’s biggest properties, three-quarters of Santa Cruz Island, the largest of five islands in Southern California’s Channel Islands National Park. Until only months before, Lotus thought that the Channel Islands meant a British dependency off the coast of France, but suddenly here she was, in charge of a place four times the size of Manhattan.

This was no California dream. When Lotus started, she told me, it was like stepping into a hailstorm. Crises fell out of the sky each day—stories of damaged landscapes, washed out roads, silenced communications, invisible eagles, and bizarre herds of feral pigs that rooted and ate and popped out feral piglets as fast as a berserk video game, pigs that for some mysterious reason were tied to a problem involving foxes—and all of it happening in a place so big and wild that if you got lost there, they’d just find bones.

How could Lotus fix things when she didn’t even understand what was wrong? “I would lie on my office floor, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, I don’t know how I’m going to survive this.’”

But she stuck with it, trying to learn everything she could. Once when I asked her to describe herself, she said immediately: “Stubborn.” Later she thought it over, as she often does with words, and wrote me an email that said: “Tenacious.”

ONE DAY, Lotus walked into the Channel Islands National Park offices, and there was the bush pilot policy wonk, Kate Faulkner. She had come from Alaska 13 years before and was now the chief of natural resources for the park. Lotus met her and thought, “Calm, even, rational.” Kate met Lotus and thought “Good.”

Over the next weeks, Kate briefed Lotus about the hailstorm.

Compared to Alaska, Kate told Lotus, the islands here were all fixer-uppers. Santa Cruz was one of the worst. Hillsides had been pulverized by sheep, and the feral pigs, which had escaped from pioneer ranchers as many as 150 years before, were plowing under the island’s diversity with their busy snouts. Yet Santa Cruz wasn’t just any old fixer-upper. It was a magnificent ruined mansion, haunted by dreams and lost chances and the sounds of scuttling decay.

When Kate got to the park in 1990, she told Lotus, pretty much the only part of the Santa Cruz ecosystem that looked healthy was the foxes.

Lotus knew about the foxes. They were the icon of the islands. They were officially called island foxes and were smaller than almost every other species of fox. They hunted in daylight, probably because they were the islands’ top land predator and didn’t need the cover of darkness. So visitors would see them often, and would fall in love.

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These little foxes are an example of island dwarfism, in which a species evolves to be smaller than its ancestors because of unique conditions on its home. Island foxes are usually between 14 and 18 percent smaller than the related grey foxes on the nearby mainland.

People apparently had loved the foxes across a vast arc of time. One of the earliest dated human remains in North America was found on these islands, reaching back 13,000 years. And from archaeological work, it appears that the foxes go back about that far, too. Many scientists think the foxes evolved linked to island people. Archaeologists once found two fox skulls in the ancient grave of a child, as if as spiritual companions to guide the most precious of souls.

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Lotus Vermeer, former manager of The Nature Conservancy property on Santa Cruz Island, stands near a flowering manzanita bush, with acres of healthy natural vegetation behind her where hillsides were once heavily damaged by sheep and feral pigs.

Lotus knew the foxes were in trouble, but Kate gave her the details. Only a few years before, the foxes had started to disappear. Fast. Across the islands there had been thousands of foxes. By 2000 on one of the smaller islands, the total dropped to 15. Even on broad hillsides of Santa Cruz, estimates went as low as 70. The park’s beloved icon tumbled toward extinction. And nobody could figure out why.

Kate described a detective drama. Biologists caught foxes, counted foxes, tested foxes. Distemper? No. Heartworm? No. Some kind of tick issue? No. The puzzle went on for one year, then two. “Rare Island Foxes Dying; Scientists Mystified” read a headline in 1998.

“It’s a crisis time,” one of Kate’s staff members, a biologist named Tim Coonan, told the newspaper.

The park put radio collars on foxes. Within two months, half the collared foxes were dead. But the carcasses revealed what a TV detective would call a modus operandi, an M.O.: Each carcass was turned inside out. This was the mark of a bird of prey. But what bird? Hawks weren’t big enough, and the bald eagles that once patrolled these skies had been gone for decades.

Tim took carcasses to a scientist in Los Angeles. The guy showed Tim talon marks on the skin. They were the size made by golden eagles, but golden eagles normally lived far away, in California’s interior.

“How could we miss something so major?” Kate said.

It turned out that golden eagles, as big as they are, are easy to miss. A bald eagle eats fish and carrion; it soars high, its white head vivid against blue skies or brown hillsides. Golden eagles hunt land animals, so they’re built to hide, even in the sky. They fly low, tawny feathers blended into tawny hills. They’re stealth birds.

But why did they get here only now?

The main reason went all the way back to Silent Spring and studies Lotus’s father had done in Canada. The islands’ fleet of bald eagles, which prefer fish to foxes, once chased golden eagles away. But DDT residues in the eagles’ diet weakened their eggshells, and by the late ’60s, it had brought an end to the entire line of bald eagles on the islands.

The foxes’ air cover was gone. Gradually, stealthily, golden eagles moved in.

But foxes alone didn’t offer enough food to draw many golden eagles. Their most abundant food source was piglets.

“They set up shop because of the pigs,” Tim said later, “but they were also hitting everything else.” A day-hunting fox made easy snacking.

“It was almost a hopeless moment,” Tim told me about being shown the talon marks. “It was a moment I knew would change everything.”

THIS WAS THE GRIM STORY in which Lotus was suddenly immersed. Briefings from Kate, Tim, and others helped her understand it better, but that didn’t mean the hailstorm of crises was over.

Shortly before Lotus arrived, the park staff had made a difficult decision. The foxes were disappearing so fast that the team had to make a last-ditch move: catch most of the foxes and put them in pens to breed so there would be some left if they could figure out how to make the islands safe again.

No national park had ever had to try to save a species by capturing it. Nobody even knew if island foxes would breed in a cage.

“This is a despairing moment for a biologist,” Tim said, “when you have to bring members of a wildlife population into captivity because they can’t handle the environment the way it is.” It was an admission of failure.

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An island fox released from a physical checkup and vaccination by national park biologists dashes across a meadow toward sheltering brush.

This effort had already started on park grounds by the time Lotus got there. Now she needed to build TNC’s own breeding center, a field full of wire-roofed cages. But as soon as she began wrestling with the crazy logistics of getting fencing, posts, and builders across 20 miles of temperamental sea, she got swept up in a fierce debate over what to do if the breeding program actually worked.

It was driven by tough puzzle no one had yet solved: If you breed lots of foxes, what if the park isn’t safe for them when they’re ready to go? Aren’t you just raising eagle snacks?

Practical efforts to solve things like this were largely led by Kate on behalf of the park and by Lotus for the Nature Conservancy. But to focus high-level expertise, Tim Coonan, who found a bunch of management talents in his biologist’s backpack, gathered experts from dozens of institutions. They came from colleges, from zoos, from the Smithsonian Institution, from all over the University of California system. Tim called it cooperative conservation.

In 1999, the experts formed an island fox working group that started meeting once a year for intense, three-day-long discussions to analyze situations and produce recommendations. Many of the organizations also donated expertise in specific needs, such as figuring out a diet for pregnant captive foxes. The group’s wide-ranging knowledge gave Kate, Lotus, Tim—and their bosses right up to national leadership—assurance that decisions were based on good science.

Lotus started working with the group soon after she arrived. But she was appalled at one of its first recommendations: that, if necessary, the golden eagles should be killed.

Lotus knew now that this job was going to test everything in her, even her heart. “There’s no way we’re going to kill eagles,” she thought. “No way!” But that was the what the team said, though the whole notion was disturbing to everyone. Kill one endangered species to save another? Wow.

“To get to that point,” Tim told me later, “you have to fight every nature of your soul.”

Now a bunch of high-level administrators from government organizations and TNC wanted to meet and talk about this awful choice. Because TNC owned so much of the island and had ranch buildings large enough for groups, Lotus hosted the meeting.

Everyone gathered in a cavernous room to have a meal, then talk. Tim presented the group’s reasoning to the assembled decision-makers, one wedge of the rationale at a time, adding up to the harsh mental image of a rifle scope trained on a bird. The decision-makers disappeared into another room. “The jury was out,” Tim said later.

The windows in the room where everyone else waited did not let in much light. To Lotus it felt too dark. She went outside.

It was late afternoon. The mountains at the ranch are set back just enough to make the valley feel spacious, but close enough for grandeur. In the late sunlight, even the sheep-damaged hillsides looked golden. It’s dark inside, she thought, but it’s bright out here. This is beautiful. This work is worth doing.

She went back in. The jury was not out long. No, the administrators said. They would not approve killing golden eagles. There was a silent sigh in the room. Did that mean that the foxes would die? If other minds were running as Lotus’s was, it did not. “It just meant that we had to find another way.” But that was easy to say.

The group went back to the mainland. Lotus Vermeer stopped looking for other jobs. She was in for whatever it took.

What followed was a kind of arms race with the eagles. The working group would try new ways to catch and remove the eagles, then the eagles would figure them out. Lotus’s favorite was an inventive biologist’s idea that Lotus called “injecto egg.” A fake egg would be made with a tranquilizer needle in it. When the eagle sat on it, a scientist watching from a distance would push a button.

Boing! Ouch! Squirt! The eagle wakes up a few hours later in another part of California.

It was tested in a nest where a remote camera let everyone see. “It went off,” Tim told me later, “and it missed, and the egg was rolling around in the nest, and the mother eagle stood up and watched it.”

Injecto egg was retired.

A solution was eventually found. A fast helicopter would follow an eagle, and when the bird grew tired and came in to land, the helicopter would launch a big net over its wings to keep it on the ground, and it would be bundled into the helicopter and flown away.

This worked. Eventually 44 golden eagles were captured. Not one died, and not one ever chose to came back to this exceedingly strange place.

BUT FOR LOTUS, that was just the beginning. As she supervised management for everything from fox breeding to road maintenance to fuel shipments, one of her happier moments came as a kind of tribute to her father’s work. The working group, worried about how to keep golden eagles away, recommended trying to bring back bald eagles, because residual DDT levels were low and now eggs held together.

The bald eagle recovery wasn’t easy. “I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” one biologist told me wryly. “There’s a lot of hazardous work here.” It involved bringing young bald eagles from elsewhere, and sometimes even climbing into tree-top nests, and no one was certain that the eagles would even stay. But figuring out how to save the foxes had an even tougher phase.

Biologists estimated that up to 3,000 feral pigs were shoveling their way through Santa Cruz’s 96 square miles of rugged landscape, each sow producing multiple litters of up to 10 piglets each. The working group’s conclusion was that all the pigs should be killed.

This was almost as hard on a biologist’s soul as the call to kill the eagles.

“We all love animals,” Lotus would tell groups of concerned citizens while trying to earn their support for the plan. “We got into this field because we have a passion for animals.” But domestic pigs were bred by humans over 10,000 years mainly to multiply, not to mesh with any ecosystem.

They sure didn’t mesh with this one. In the 150 years since the pigs had escaped from early ranchers, they’d gone through horrifying cycles of boom and bust. At the end of each population boom, fields would be dust, and thousands of starving pigs would be so weak they’d sometimes only be able to drag themselves around by their front legs. Was that kind of mass die-off any more humane than quick death by bullet?

But rationales like that still didn’t make killing pigs easy to accept. Even Kate, fully behind it, knew it was one of those agonizing choices that no one ever wants to make but sometimes must. No argument, Kate told me, “would necessarily cause everybody to choose one option over the other. It wasn’t that black and white.”

Both the park and TNC approved the cull. Without it, all the other efforts might have been in vain. If the pigs were still there to lure the golden eagles back, released foxes would be doomed. And the pigs were the last major impediment to the patient majesty of evolution. Taking out the pigs would put the natural world back in command.

This argument did not prevent lawsuits and harsh press from people who adamantly opposed the killing. One daily newspaper published photos of several individuals involved, including Kate, in what it called “The Hall of Shame.” Kate found the attack personal and unsettling, but it didn’t erode her resolve.

“I was always on,” Lotus told me. “Twenty-four hours a day.” She talked to TNC members who were queasy about all this killing. She spoke with animal rights groups. She brought people to the island to see the devastation firsthand. To her, it came down to real face time, not the computer kind, and to treating people equally—“connecting on a basic human level.”

Meanwhile, up in the hillside cages above the old ranch buildings, foxes brought forth babies. Occasionally, Lotus went up there to check on them. They were just dozing or looking steadily back at the busy humans—small, calm beings at the center of the storm.

Eventually, in March 2006, a judge dismissed the final lawsuit. Lotus didn’t celebrate. In a complex, rigorous operation, 5,036 pigs were killed. After that, the recovery work was still complex, but the hardest part was over: The big decisions had been made. The rest was simply about getting it done, and they did.

In the end it took 25 years, $21 million dollars from many sources—private donors, agency budgets, and mitigation funds for the damage done by DDT—and the work of hundreds of people with the same kind of determination that drove Lotus, Kate, and Tim. Finally, in 2016, the foxes were taken off the endangered species list.

“IF I TELL YOU TO JUMP,” Lotus Vermeer said, “then jump!”

We were in a big old pickup truck on Santa Cruz’s steep and scary dirt roads. Lotus wasn’t positive the truck would hold on the hillside. It was a day in January 2020, almost 51 years since I saw that oil darkening the shore.

Lotus drove. She’s working for a university now but still collaborates extensively with TNC. Kate Faulkner rode with us. She’s now retired.

We were surrounded by flowers. Ceanothus bushes were coming out, tiny blooms carrying so much pollen that I was surprised not to see golden clouds drifting by. Big manzanita bushes, many of them yards across, were fully abloom, each flower a tiny white bell, so bright it was as if the bushes were ringing with light.

Occasionally a fox darted across, but more often we just saw little piles of fox poop in the middle of the road, reeking to the world: I am here. This is mine.

When I asked about great moments in the story, Kate and Lotus mentioned well-known milestones: When the first bald eagle chick hatched, in 2006, right in front of a web camera. (There have now been more than 20.) And the day the last captive fox was released on Santa Cruz, in 2007. Tim Coonan had sprung the cage door. VIPs were everywhere, but the little female fox didn’t seem to want to leave. She just lingered by her cage.

“It’s like, dude, this is it!” Tim told me. “Go! Go! Come on, you’re going to be fine. Write when you get work!”

But the fox recovery was never just about foxes. The foxes were simply a beloved icon that brought focus to something more subtle but grander. This was about an entire ecosystem, which had only just begun to recover when the last captive fox was released but was now in full bloom. It was not about going back to some imaginary past ideal world. This was a new kind of world in which humans, who now have the power to change everything, tried to become more cooperative, not just with one another, but with the power that built the world to begin with.

Lotus drove the truck to an open slope. The wind blew, and a bald eagle rode updrafts in the distance, its white head shining against a dark blue windswept sea. Lotus and Kate sat on a hillside, among fox trails, above a treetop eagle’s nest in the valley below, now occupied every year. From a distance I heard one of them say, “You remember when...?” but I didn’t hear the rest. They laughed.

Kate got philosophical. She said that the foxes were saved because of choices people made in the ’60s and ’70s, hard choices they wouldn’t live to see out, that have since saved many species, lives, and places. There was Rachel Carson, testifying during her final illness in spite of virulent attacks on her reputation by industry, then the banning of DDT, passage of environmental protection laws, and every year the steady reminder, and assessment, of Earth Day.

“But each generation has its challenges,” she said. “Are we going to make the kind of choices now where 30, 40 years from now our children’s children will say, Oh, thank goodness they made that choice?”

On this afternoon, there was another one of those great moments in the story, happening right here. The two women who had led so much of this had not been back recently. Now they were seeing the full scope of the change for the first time, from the fox poop to the ceanothus pollen to the eagle in the sky. They were in awe. They sat on the hillside in the fresh wind from the sea and just looked and listened.

Spring would not be silent on Santa Cruz Island this year.

Later, Lotus Vermeer walked on a trail near the shore. She had a sprig of ceanothus in her hand, covered with blossoms. “In my wildest dreams,” Lotus said, spinning the flowers in her fingers, “I could never have imagined Santa Cruz could be so, so—lush.”

But she thought about that word later. It wasn’t just lush, she said the next day. The right word was “alive.”

Michael Parfit is an independent writer and documentary filmmaker who has been a frequent contributor to National Geographic magazine and television. His most recent work is “Call of the Baby Beluga,” aired worldwide on Nat Geo Wild in 2017. He lives in British Columbia.

Melissa Groo
is a wildlife photographer, writer, and conservationist based in upstate New York. She writes a bimonthly column on wildlife photography for Outdoor Photographer, is a contributing editor to Audubon, and an associate fellow with the International League of Conservation Photographers. Follow her on Instagram and Facebook.