In search of nest No. 501, Jeremy Dixon and Ralph DeGayner trudged through the tropical hardwood hammock in North Key Largo, a slice of the Keys that was a battleground in the early 1980s between developers who envisioned luxury condos and high-end resorts and conservationists who wanted to preserve the last pristine stretch of the island chain.
The conservationists prevailed, and the land became part of the Crocodile Lake National Wildlife Refuge. Thirty years later, the woods are home to a new fight: rats vs. cats.
Dixon, the refuge’s manager and lone paid employee, and DeGayner, a dedicated snowbird volunteer for the past 12 years, have been working to prevent the extinction of the Key Largo woodrat, a species found nowhere else on the planet.
“Some people think a rat is a rat is a rat,” Dixon said. “But look at this.”
They found nest No. 501, intricately built with more than 1,000 sticks by one of the cute, medium-sized rodents.
“This is just amazing to go from no sticks to this in less than a year,” Dixon said. “And look at this stick. It’s about 30 inches long. A rodent dragged this through the forest and up on the pile.”
The nocturnal rodent’s biggest threat used to be development that gobbled up its precious habitat. Now, it’s a small army of fearless felines, efficient hunters that can kill several woodrats in a single evening.
Cameras placed around woodrat nests by the University of North Carolina during a monitoring study have caught several cats in the act.
In early 2013, before Dixon became manager, the refuge implemented a controversial trapping program to remove all cats. Most captured in the traps so far have been feral. All of those types have been taken to the local animal shelter. Seven of the trapped cats have been free-roaming pets, and they were returned to their owners with a small fine and the request to keep them inside.
The program has not gone over well with many cat lovers in the Upper Keys community.
“The murder of our beloved pets must be stopped,” well-known Keys dive shop owner Spencer Slate said during a November public meeting with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service officials.
Resident Wayne Blevins is not happy about the trapping of the unowned cats. He’s been feeding cat colonies in Key Largo for more than a decade. He said in the same meeting that Dixon has lied to the community about trapping the felines only on refuge land, claiming traps were put at a grocery store about a mile from the refuge, a site where some of his beloved cats congregate for daily feedings.
Blevins demanded that Dixon be fired.
But others attending the meeting supported Dixon and the refuge’s mission to protect the rodents from extinction. The refuge already had played a role in helping the once-endangered American Crocodile become upgraded to threatened in 2007.
“We are in the middle of the sixth great extinction,” Dixon said. “It’s happening everywhere. So we have got to preserve what biodiversity we have. The woodrat is certainly part of that mix.”
The meeting was held to try to educate people about the importance to the ecosystem of the woodrat, as well as the endangered Key Largo cotton mouse. They eat and distribute berries, leaves, nuts and seeds, as well as serving as food for native birds and snakes.
In the book, A Gap in Nature, Discovering the World’s Extinct Animals, Tim Flannery wrote that the last time the planet experienced such a comparable carnage was 65million years ago during the demise of the dinosaurs.
The book also catalogues 103 creatures that have vanished since Columbus first set foot in the new world. “It’s no coincidence that most of them primarily existed on islands,” Dixon said.
When the refuge manager’s position became open in 2013, Dixon was working as a wildlife biologist for the Wichita Mountains National Wildlife Refuge in Oklahoma, where bison and longhorn roam on its 60,000 acres.
“I was sort of a glorified ranch hand,” he said. “I rode horses and was in charge of a lot of the invasive plant management.”
Dixon said he jumped at the opportunity to return to Florida, where he grew up and where he researched the conservation genetics of Florida blackberries while at the University of Florida.
“I’ve always been interested in the Keys, and in the islands,” he said. “It’s the whole idea that we have these really unique and different species on islands.”
When he arrived, he met brothers Ralph and Clay DeGayner, who had been passionately volunteering endless hours over the past decade to save the woodrats.
“My wife said I can’t find my socks, but I can find a woodrat nest out here,” Ralph DeGayner said.
Nearly 700 nests have been tagged in the 1,200 acres of hardwood hammock in the refuge. Many of them were started by the DeGayners.
Woodrats like to build their nests on top of coral rock formations. But when the DeGayners first began volunteering, they realized that much of the natural habitat had been flattened for agricultural purposes and development.
So they began making starter foundations for the nests, which have several entrances to give a woodrat options when it is trying to escape predators such as snakes. Woodrats like their nests to have a protective area inside about the size of a five-gallon bucket.
First, the DeGayners used derelict boats, followed by a personal watercraft that was disinfected of toxins. “The Sea-Doo worked great as a breeding nest,” Ralph DeGayner said. “We had three to four broods in a year out of it. We thought it was perfect, but the environmental people didn’t think so.”
Next, they used cinderblock and tin donated by roofers to create a protective space they covered with coral rock. And for No. 501 and others, they used plastic culverts purchased with funds from the nonprofit FAVOR (Friends and Volunteers of Refuges). The culverts provided the protective space, which they also covered with coral rock.
“One thing that is brilliant in what Clay and Ralph have done is they figured out that maybe predators are an issue, and using some stone was better than just a house of sticks,” Dixon said. “It’s the whole analogy of the Three Little Pigs.”
Now, Dixon said the refuge is trying an all-natural starter foundation by using a fire hose to force sediment and dirt out of tree root cavities.
Dixon said helping woodrats recover involves a combination of management tools. “I know some people think I go around all day looking for cats to trap,” he said.
In reality, a refuge intern provided by the Student Conservation Association does most of the trapping, leaving Dixon, the sole paid employee for a refuge of 6,700 acres, to oversee the myriad other duties that get done with the help of volunteers. Last year, 99 people contributed 4,384 volunteer hours to the refuge, which is not open to the public except for a tiny reception room and small butterfly garden.
The projects include habitat restoration of Schaus swallowtail butterflies and restoration of tropical hardwood hammock.
He also works on projects that involved crocodile nest enhancements, monitoring and hatchlings. And, of course, there is plenty of administrative paperwork.
But his No. 1 priority is to save the endangered species. The refuge has learned the hard way that dealing with the exotic predators is a must after a breeding program conducted by Disney’s Animal Kingdom and Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, in conjunction with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, failed miserably.
Three times lab-bred woodrats were released into the refuge and three times the creatures were no match for the predators, primarily the cats.
“It was a slaughter,” DeGayner said.
He estimates he has spent 6,000 hours in the refuge, some of them in the daylight hours to build the nests and many of them at night, just to watch the woodrats.
“It’s not tolerable to me to let a species go extinct,” said DeGayner, 79. “If everybody could watch woodrats like I have, and see all the work they do to build their nests, they would want to preserve the species, too.”