The seas get rough in October, when Rob Puddicombe and an accomplice bounce their inflatable dinghy across the 12-mile, open-water channel separating the mainland from Anacapa Island, the lonely, windswept rock that is the scene of Puddicombe's alleged crimes.
According to federal prosecutors, the surfer-bus driver beached his boat at Anacapa, shouldered a large backpack and began dispersing five pounds of specially formulated, vitamin-fortified kibble.
"I can see the headline now: Man Wants to Save Rats. Like ha, ha, ha," Puddicombe said as he spoke with a reporter on the beach. "Which I do. I want to save the rats and I want to save the Xantus's murrelet and the Anacapa deer mouse, too. I want to save them all."
Which is the problem.
Resource managers at the Channel Islands National Park do not want the black rats of Anacapa Island saved. They want Rattus rattus exterminated. With a vengeance. To the rodent. Because to kill the rat is to save rare seabirds, whose eggs the rats eat.
So employing helicopters, they have bombed Anacapa Island (which is actually the West, Middle and East islets) with poison bait to snuff out the black rats that have infested the atoll.
"Even using words like 'infested,' " Puddicombe, 52, said. "That shows where they are coming from. They've demonized the rats. They have rodent phobia."
The rodenticide employed by the National Park Service was brodifacoum, which is an anticoagulant that acts by blocking the vitamin K oxidation-reduction cycle in the liver. In layman's terms, the rats bleed to death by uncontrolled internal hemorrhage. After they have ingested the poison pill, their expiration date has essentially been stamped: They have two weeks. Max.
"I can just imagine them," Puddicombe said, "out there, dying in the rain."
A possible antidote for such poisoning, however, exists. It is large quantities of vitamin K.
"So there's a ranger out there, and he's seeing these guys throwing this stuff around. They go back to their boat. But the boat won't start. And the ranger puts two and two together, and when we do a test on the pellets they're throwing around, we find these incredibly concentrated levels of vitamin K," said Thom Mrozek, an assistant U.S. attorney in Los Angeles.
Puddicombe and his partner are charged with "feeding wildlife" and "interfering with a federal function." The companion, Robert Crawford, pleaded guilty and was fined $200 and ordered to stay off the Channel Islands for the two years of his probation.
Puddicombe will stand trial before a federal magistrate in February and said he will plead not guilty. He would like to put the Park Service on trial. That is unlikely. He faces a year in prison. That, too, is unlikely. Mrozek said, "I seriously doubt the man is facing incarceration."
Puddicombe said, "I feel like Alice in Wonderland. The National Park Service is the hero for poisoning rats and I'm charged with feeding wildlife."
He compares the rat extermination program to a jihad against non-native species. "And who are humans to call another species invasive, huh? That is a joke," Puddicombe said.
Not true, say the restoration biologists. The rat must go because the rat is not a native to the island, having arrived, depending on the theory, either in 1853 with the shipwreck of the paddle steamer Winfield Scott or later, perhaps during the construction of the island's lighthouse. The first mention of rats in the scientific literature is 1939.
There are many non-native species that play a relatively benign role in nature. The rat is not one of them. The black rat has been implicated in the decline of several species of seabird, such as the ashy storm petrel and the Xantus's murrelet.
"We know from other islands that black rats will eat eggs and young of the murrelet," said Paul Collins, a curator at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History, who 20 years ago studied black rats on the California islands.
The Xantus's murrelet is especially vulnerable. A smallish black and white seabird, the murrelet spends its days hunting for fish in the ocean, but at night, it returns to its nests and burrows, in the crevices and corners of islands. There are only about 10,000 nesting murrelets left, living in the Channel Islands and northern Baja in Mexico. They are an exceedingly rare "species of special concern," and a candidate for the endangered-species list.
Puddicombe said there is no evidence that the rats have eaten murrelet eggs on Anacapa Island. So what? says the biologist Collins. The reason is there have been too few murrelets on Anacapa to study. But nearby Santa Barbara Island, where there are no rats, hosts the largest breeding population of Xantus's murrelets on the planet. Sans rat, Collins sees Anacapa Island as prime murrelet breeding grounds. "The island is absolutely classic habitat for seabird colonies," Collins said.
On Anacapa, the biologists have also had to perform a juggling act. Before they blitzed the island with rat poison, they first had to trap Anacapa deer mice, which are native to the island and protected. Eventually, they captured about 1,000 mice, which they housed in captive breeding facilities for about six months before and after the poisoning; then they were released back into the wild.
Of course, they did not capture every deer mouse. The native wild mouse population on Anacapa is estimated to fluctuate between 1,500 and 6,000. "And so the downside is that you kill a lot of mice when you kill the rats," Collins said.
There is other collateral damage. In the first poison application on the East islet of Anacapa Island in December 2001, biologists found 49 dead birds. In the second application on the Middle and West islets of Anacapa in December 2002, they've found 47 more dead birds.
To limit the deaths, more juggling ensued. Before the poison applications, the Park Service hired contractors to trap and remove dozens of peregrine falcons, owls, kestrels and hawks. Some were released back onto the island and others have been relocated.
To Puddicombe, all this is hubris. "Here's a quote for you," he said, and read from notes he took from his pocket. "The National Park Service is playing God on the Channel Islands and it lacks the wisdom and compassion to do the job."
That is not fair, said Erik Aschehoug, project manager for the Nature Conservancy, which owns two-thirds of Santa Cruz Island as a wild preserve. "The Channel Islands are like the Galapagos of North America, with species found here and nowhere else in the world, a rich coastal heritage of the way California used to be," Aschehoug said. "Certain non-native species pose a threat to all that." There are plenty of black rats in the world, Aschehoug said. There are not plenty of Xantus's murrelets.
But Puddicombe and many animal rights activists, who are increasingly challenging biological restoration efforts, see the world differently. Puddicombe said he does not care about ecosystems, but about individuals.
"To me the idea of species is just an abstract concept. Species go extinct all the time," Puddicombe said. "That's the philosophical difference. These animals are here and alive now. Their lives have value."
Puddicombe once made his living as a commercial diver, harvesting sea urchins and abalone and working on oil rigs. A few years ago, he began volunteering for a wildlife rescue organization in Santa Barbara, caring for sick and maimed pelicans and sparrows, skunks and coyotes. "And you see that they are all individuals with their own personalities, not little robot machines," he said.
Puddicombe has his supporters. The Fund for Animals, a national animal rights organization, is standing behind him. Its president, Mark Markarian, said Puddicombe is being harassed because he dares confront the Park Service and its "religious fervor" to restore lands to some earlier, pristine state at the cost of the inhumane slaughter of pigs, goats, sheep, rabbits and rats.
Asked what the Park Service should do to save the Xantus's murrelet, which also should have a place to live, Markarian replied, "If they were able to demonstrate that black rats were having an impact, we'd hope they would find a humane alternative to this poison."
"If they were able to capture deer mice, they could have captured black rats and relocated them," he said.
What if that is impossible, because the black rats live along steep cliffs, or because it would simply consume too much of the restoration's $2.4 million budget? Or, because of the quandary of where to relocate the rats?
"It is their responsibility to try," Markarian said.
Puddicombe agreed. The Park Service and most of the scientific community of restoration biologists do not.
"In the 12 months since East Anacapa was treated, the signs of long-term recovery are already evident," said Channel Islands National Park acting superintendent Terry Hofstra. "The juvenile side-splotched lizard and slender salamander are surviving at twice the rate as the islets with rats. And for the first time in recent history, a Xantus's murrelet egg was found intact in a sea cave within the treated area."
And the black rats?
Hofstra said they appear to be gone.