The Navy, the Least Tern and the Feral Cats

The Navy, the Least Tern and the Feral Cats

As Carl Jung would say, “There is a shadow side to everything.” Even the treasured least tern of Alameda has, or had, a dark side (“Meet Alameda’s Treasured Least Tern,” May 23).

I was not always the Encinal High School mathematics teacher who writes columns, diatribes and letters to the editor from the fringe — or slightly beyond the fringe. In my halcyon days, I was a Naval aviator assigned to Naval Air Station Alameda during its final days. From 1990 until the beginning of 1994, in addition to serving as a station pilot, I was the base safety officer.

Frequently, the job called for me to serve as the command duty officer (CDO) for 24-hour watches. At the close of business, the Commanding Officer would retire to his quarters, leaving the base in the capable hands of his CDO. The CDO would get briefed by the operations department, which was located in the building attached to the control tower. 

One of the more unusual briefings I received was an introduction to Alameda’s own Annie Oakley. I only dub her that because I do not know her real name. Standing on the upper deck of the ops building, this matronly sharpshooter lovingly cradled a 22-caliber rifle in her arms, while her nocturnal mission was explained to me. Her mission was to guard the Least Tern Sanctuary from feral cats.

The rifle had a flashlight duct taped to the barrel; it illuminated both its feline target and its gun sights. One feral cat, feeding on nesting least terns, could drive the vulnerable rookery to extinction in just a few weeks if someone wasn’t there to protect it.

Sadly, Navy people, transferring from Alameda often left their pets behind — even little Whiskers, Garfield, Mittens, Felix and Bill. If you don’t believe it, check out all the domestic breeds of rabbits that currently inhabit the airfield: all of them are descendants of abandoned pets.

Under the cover of night, Annie would station herself and sit patiently on the perimeter of the sanctuary. When a prowling feline approached the sanctuary, the pop of a 22-caliber shot ripped through the night air. She fired no warning shots. 

An endangered least tern was saved but alas, poor Tom suffered terminal lead poisoning.
The operation was kept under wraps, lest a brouhaha ensue when the animal-rights crowd took on feral cat people. 

If Annie reads this column, I would sure be interested to meet her. In a very low-key way, her priorities — terns over cats — allowed the least tern population to spring back from a handful in 1972 to its present population which occupies more than 300 nests each season.

We thank you, Alameda’s Annie Oakley. As for the cats? Well, they have a different take.


LCrd. Jeffrey R Smith, U.S. Navy (Ret.), teaches mathematics at Encinal High School. 

Editor’s note: Jeff Smith wrote even more about the Navy’s efforts to protect the least tern a few years ago. “The Real Story on Protecting Least Terns,” Aug. 20, 2015. Apparently armed service personnel laid down telephone poles to protect the tiny birds’ colony from being crushed by passing service vehicles.