Our planet holds a mind-boggingly vast array of life that has managed to inhabit almost every corner of this world. Everywhere one goes they are likely to encounter animals, and sometimes we are surprised to see one pop up where it has no business at all being. While the occasional escaped exotic pet is to be expected, sometimes things go well beyond this, with entire populations of totally out of place animals thriving in a new habitat in which they were never meant to be. Here we will look into the weird and often wondrous world of strange populations far from their native land, and take a look into the adaptability of life on this mysterious place we call Earth.
Many of the strangest populations of remarkable out of place animals are those who have mysteriously managed to end up on islands, where they roam wild far from their native domains. Sitting within Scotland’s Loch Lomond is a small uninhabited island called Inchconnachan, which aside from its scenic quality does not have much to see and is relatively obscure, that is except for the roving wild wallabies that can be found here living naturally in the wild. While Scotland may seem to be the last place where one would find wallabies roaming free, these marsupials native to Australia have managed to thrive here, and their origins in this strange land are rather colorful.
In the 1940s, during the height of World War II, a Lady Arran Colquhoun brought the wallabies to Inchconnachan, where she had a small holiday bungalow, from her backyard menagerie at her home and released them into the wild. In the ensuing years the few wallabies that were initially released have managed to breed into a fairly healthy, self-sustaining population, and this has caused some amount of debate as to whether they potentially pose a threat to the native ecosystem, although there has been no concrete evidence of this. While there are those who have called for these out of place animals to be culled, they have proven to be a hit with visitors, who boat out to the island for a chance to catch a glimpse of its unusual denizens.
Unbelievably, there is yet another odd island in the United Kingdom also ruled by wallabies. In the 1980s, the Dublin Zoo, in Ireland, sought to relocate some of its steadily growing population of wallabies, which had gotten too big to be properly housed. It was finally decided to take seven of the animals to the tiny 600 acre privately-owned Lambay Island, located in the Irish Sea right off the coast of Dublin, where they were taken to the highest point and simply released into the wild. While it was worried that they would soon perish in the cold climate, the wallabies defied expectations by proceeding to thrive there. Indeed, the wallabies have adapted to the colder weather by growing thicker coats, and seem to have taken to the food available just fine, even going as far as to feed off of hay left out for cattle during winters when resources are scarce. The wallabies have drawn in visitors in droves, and one guide by the name of Eoin Grimes has said of the rather strange and jarring sight, "You don’t really believe it till you see them. The first time I came out here I was like, ‘What the hell is going on here?’"
It is estimated that around 50 red-necked wallabies inhabit Lambay Island now, and although they have been a hit with tourists hoping to get a glimpse of the shy and elusive creatures, there is concern that the animals could pose a threat to the many sea birds that rely on this place, as well as the natural indigenous ecosystem. There has even been worry that they could make the 2.5 mile swim to the mainland and become a potential threatening invasive species. Despite these concerns, there has been little done to try and manage Lambay Island’s wild wallabies except for the occasional cull when their population seems to be growing too fast for their own good. For now these Irish wallabies seem like they will be around well into the future.
Adding to the wallaby islands are several mysterious islands roamed by feral horses. One such island is Corolla, North Carolina, a speck of land just off the coast that boasts a thriving population of several hundred of the rare Banker breed of horse, which is descended from the original Colonial Spanish Mustang. It has been rather a mystery as to how the horses actually got here, but the main theories are that they were either abandoned here by 16th century Spanish conquistadors or were survivors of shipwrecks. Whatever the reason for their presence, their long isolation makes them one of the only remaining populations of pureblood Banker horses in the world, untouched and unchanged from the original Spanish horses of centuries past. The mysterious horses have become quite an attraction, and anyone interested in seeing them up close can arrange a a tour through one of the several operations devoted to horse viewing on the island.
Equally as alluring is the herd of horses found on Sable Island, off the coast of Halifax, Nova Scotia in Canada. The island itself is a low lying crescent shaped strip of treeless land made of pure sand, only about 26 miles long and dotted with some sparse grasses, plants and shrubs. It does not seem like the sort of place where one might expect to find herds of majestic horses flying free amongst the dunes, but here there are an estimated 400 wild horses, which are thought to be descendants of horses introduced to the island sometime in the 18th century, after which they have gone on to become their own unique breed. Although interest in Sable Island’s roaming horses is high, the land has been designated as a national park by the Canadian government, the Sable breed classified as the official horse of Nova Scotia, and anyone who wishes to get a glimpse of these animals must first secure government permission to do so.
Along with wallabies and horses is an island that hosts its own population of out of place monkeys. Situated off the coast of South Carolina, in the United States, is Morgan Island, a 4,489 acre marshland island which is uninhabited by humans. In 1979, Puerto Rico’s Caribbean Primate Research Center experienced an outbreak of the herpes B virus among its southeast Asian rhesus monkeys, where they had been housed for the purpose of developing a polio vaccine. Some of these monkeys escaped to cause outbreaks among humans as well, and the Puerto Rican government desperately reached out for help in relocating some of its monkeys. Morgan Island was offered as a refuge for the animals, and around 1,400 monkeys were moved here to begin a new life, after which their population grew to the nearly 4,000 that occupy the island at present.
Morgan Island remains a federally protected zone, with no visitors allowed and the only outsiders with access the researchers who tag the monkeys and take some of them from time to time for biomedical research and studies on diseases such as AIDS and polio. The area is now administered by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources and is often used by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who see it as a sort of outdoor laboratory. Although the monkeys are mostly wild and free ranging, with little effort to manage or control them, there is some food, water, and veterinary care provided to the animals by the government on occasion. Although no visitors are allowed on the island, the monkeys are a popular sight for passing boaters or fishermen, who enjoy watching the antics of these strange inhabitants. One spokesman for the island has said:
People will see a lot of the wildlife out there that you would expect to see, like alligators, otters and migratory birds. But those monkeys definitely are an unusual sight not from around these parts.
Of course islands don’t have the monopoly on strange groups of out of place animals. Perhaps rather well-known are all of the hippopotamuses running around down in the South American country of Colombia. Here the notorious drug lord Pablo Escobar built a bloody empire on cocaine and wove his reign of terror, ultimately being responsible for thousands of deaths. In the 1980s Escobar built his opulent ranch and estate, Hacienda Napoles, in the rural area of Antioquia. In addition to his collection of cars, concrete sculptures of dinosaurs, and assorted decadence was a private menagerie of animals, complete with elephants, giraffes, exotic birds, and four hippos. The private zoo was often shown to local people, who were allowed free access to view the animals, and it was all quite the status symbol in its day, but things were to take a turn for the worse for the drug lord.
In 1993, Escobar’s estate was raided by the Colombian police and Escobar decided to go down fighting, falling in a hail of bullets. In the ensuing years the now abandoned Hacienda Napoles fell into disrepair and calls began to come in of locals seeing strange, lumbering animals with large mouths and small ears stalking through the waterways of the area, animals which most of them had never seen before. These of course turned out to be Escobar’s hippos, which had escaped their enclosure and gone feral, seemingly thriving in their new environment. At first confined to the immediate area of the ranch and its many ponds, eventually the hippos began to roam far and wide, with one of them found a full 155 miles away from the estate. They have since migrated all over the place, and there are now an estimated 40 of the animals scattered all about, quite possibly more, and all of them descendants of those original four.
Of course there has been quite a bit of concern about the potential negative impact on the native ecosystem and the threat posed for humans. Hippos are extremely large, powerful animals that despite their cuddly appearance are quite aggressive and territorial. Indeed, in their native habitat hippos are responsible for more human deaths than any other wild animal, and these Colombian hippos have shown little reservation in brashly crashing through farms and ranches of the area looking for food. In response to these threats there have at various times been proposals to cull the animals, but considering their charismatic nature and tourist appeal there has been staunch opposition to this plan. One case where one of the hippos was tracked and killed by Colombian soldiers caused a public outcry, and all plans to kill off the animals have since been put on indefinite hold.
There have also been ideas floated around of relocating them, but they cannot be returned to Africa due to the potential for spreading disease, and although some have been moved to zoos there are just too many of them and the logistics of such an operation are daunting and expensive. Other ideas are castration and electric fences but these have not been effective and are also difficult and expensive to carry out. For now the hippos remain, with their population steadily growing as their age of sexual maturity drops to ages much lower than their African brethren. Although their future remains uncertain, Escobar’s hippos continue to enjoy their new home.
Moving on to the United States we come to the picturesque Golden Gate Park, of San Francisco, California. Often compared to New York City’s Central Park, this urban park is sprawled over around 1,000 acres of lush parkland containing museums, a Japanese tea garden, windmills, the Academy of Sciences, and miles and miles of trails. While there are lots of birds and animals to be seen here, one that most would not expect to run across is an American bison, yet the park hosts its own herd of the massive beasts. But why are they here?
When Golden Gate Park was first created, one of the ideas was that it would be a monument to the Wild West, and to complete this illusion it was thought that bison were needed for their iconic status. At around the time the park was first set up, in 1871, rampant hunting had taken its toll on the populations of wild bison in the United States, with their numbers plummeting rapidly, so it was also thought that bison in Golden Gate park could be a way for people to see these vanishing, majestic animals up close and serve as a method of conservation. Beginning from 1891, a small herd of the animals was brought to the park and kept in a spacious paddock, after which more and more bison were added from private and public herds, with a captive breeding program also started at the time. Over the years, the bison herd of Golden Gate Park has been replaced on several occasions, so the animals there now are not the direct descendants of the originals, and it has been decided to make the herd all female. Nowadays the bison can be seen grazing and lounging about, more or less free ranging except for some fences here and there, and are quite a strange sight to see for curious visitors.
Interestingly, San Francisco is known for some other populations of unusual introduced animals that are just about as jarring to come across here in this bustling city. In 1990, a pair of parrots called cherry-headed conures escaped captivity and took up residence on the famous Telegraph Hill. Oddly, the flock began to grow as other escaped conures joined the original pair and they began to breed, with an estimated 200 of the parrots making their home here by 2005. Although they mostly congregate around Telegraph Hill, the wild parrots of San Francisco have managed to spread all over the city and make for a curious sight amongst this urban jungle.
Speaking of parrots, another place where one might not expect to see these tropical birds is Brooklyn, New York, yet here there are also flocks of wild parrots which have taken up residence at Brooklyn College and other places around the city. Although it is not known for sure just where exactly they came from, the prevailing theory is that they originated from a shipment of pets that got loose from John F. Kennedy International Airport in the 1960s. The birds have set up colonies in several areas, with a total of around 300 nests scattered about, which they tend to build near utility pole transformers for the heat. Utility workers routinely remove the nests and set up deterrent measures due to their potential damaging effects on the power grid, but the tenacious parrots always seem to come back, and for now they seem to be here to stay.
One type of location that has oddly drawn its own strange animals to it is that of military bases. Outside of Cheyenne, Wyoming is a strategic missile base called Francis E. Warren Air Force Base, which houses ICBM nuclear missiles and also has rather strangely become the home of a wild herd of pronghorn antelope. The only known herd of urban antelope in the United States, the pronghorn at the base likely find the location appealing as the high security keeps unwanted predators and visitors away, and the animals can be seen grazing and wandering about right outside of the various buildings, dorms, and offices here. This particular herd has in recent years been used to help save the endangered pronghorn population of Baja California by using some of the females as surrogate mothers.
Perhaps even more bizarre still is the Seneca Army Depot, a munitions storage site sprawled over 10,000 acres in Seneca County, New York, and which harbors a mysterious herd of pure white deer. Starting from the 1940s, sightings began to come in of people seeing the ghostly white deer in the area, starting rumors that they were the result of military experiments or genetic aberrations brought about by underground radioactive weapons. In truth, these are white-tailed deer who carry a recessive gene for an all white coat referred to as leucistic, meaning lacking pigmentation in the hair. It is a trait which has managed to become prominent in the herd due to the fenced in, protected living conditions, which makes sure the recessive gene comes out more frequently.
Furthering the proliferation of the white coat genes was the military’s decision to protect the unusual animals, with a ban on hunting the white deer long in place and efforts to push out normal brown deer. Although the depot closed down in 2000, the deer remained, and there were at one time an estimated 300 white deer lurking about the mostly abandoned base, the largest herd of all white deer in the world. There have been efforts to turn the area into a sanctuary for the preservation of the white deer and an eco-tourism destination, where people can go to see these eerie-looking creatures for themselves, and there have been programs pursued to repair fencing around the area and plant crops that could be a nutritional supplement for the mysterious animals. It is hoped that these conservation efforts can save the unique herd, as it has been estimated that their numbers have dropped down from 300 to only around 100 of the animals.
It seems that our planet has a way of turning up surprises even in the most populated or even urban of areas. Life really does seem to find a way to stretch out past its normal boundaries to turn up in the most amazing of places. Here they surprise and instill wonder in us, capturing the imagination with their presence. While in the cases we have looked at here the effects of these populations on their habitats or their futures remain uncertain, they are undeniably fascinating curiosities and illustrate just how adaptable life on our planet can be. You just never know where the strangest animals are going to turn up.