As the human population of the Galapagos Islands has increased so too has the number of domestic animals, such that there are now thousands of dogs and cats living on all four of the inhabited islands of Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana. Whilst this may initially seem harmless, they are very much considered invasive animals and can pose a major threat to the native species. Not only do cats and dogs carry diseases and parasites that could affect the endemic wildlife (see here for a recent relevant article on sea lion immunity), they will also harass and prey on animals such as marine and land iguanas, young giant tortoises and birds. As in many other locations, it has also resulted in much domestic animal neglect, homelessness and overpopulation.
Until 2010 there was no veterinary service on the islands. A few years ago Tod Emko, a conservationist from New York, realized the urgent need for veterinary care and founded the Darwin Animal Doctors in Galapagos. This free service is now staffed by volunteer veterinarians from around the world. A permanent clinic has been established on Santa Cruz and vets are sent to the other islands to provide a mobile service as Galapagos law prevents animal transportation between islands.
The vets work alongside many organisations including the Galapagos National Park, the Galapagos Preservation Society and the Board of Invasive Species. They help to control and reduce existing and future cat and dog populations in several ways. Firstly, they provide a free spay and neuter service on all the inhabited islands. As many people lack time or transport to bring their animals to the surgery this often involves the vets driving to farms in the highlands and setting up mobile clinics in schools. Secondly, they encourage Galapagos residents to adopt rescued street animals, reducing the number of strays roaming the towns and beaches. Lastly, they liaise with organisations working with boat operators and businesses to try to prevent the illegal smuggling of animals from the mainland.
Vets also carry out preventative healthcare programs by giving worm and other parasite treatments. Not only does this keep the domestic animals disease-free but it also prevents diseases and parasites being potentially transmitted to the native wildlife. In addition to this, ill or injured casualties, be they domestic or wild, are treated by the vets, so veterinary care is now available for all animals in Galapagos.
The Darwin Animal Doctors and the Galapagos Preservation Society have also implemented a fence and shelter-building scheme. Many pet dogs are made to live outside on a chain or are left to roam. Erecting fences and building shelters outside people’s homes provides the animal with a better quality of life and an added degree of safety, whilst at the same time safeguarding endemic species from predation and harassment.
The final aspect of veterinary involvement, and perhaps one of the most important, is education. Vets are involved in educational programs for both adults and children. They explain the benefits of neutering and disease control to a sometimes reluctant audience (many farmers use their dogs for hunting and erroneously believe that once neutered, the dogs won’t perform this function) and teach children to respect and care for their pets and the wild animals around them.
By providing medical treatment and instituting neuter, relocation and adoption programs, as well as those for parasite and disease control, domestic animal containment, importation restriction and education, vets now play a vital role in the welfare and protection of all animals, both domestic and wild, on the Galapagos Islands.
by Stephanie Goode