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Smuggling Pets Into an Ecological Sanctuary Evolution is Going to the Dogs in the Galapagos

Evolution is Going to the Dogs in the Galapagos

by Captain PAUL WATSON

A special law for the Galapagos specifically prohibits dogs and cats, and for good reason. They are exotic species who don’t belong on these islands, where indigenous animals have no natural defense against them.

Now, considering that it is against the law to have a dog or a cat on the islands, you would think that spotting a dog or cat would be very rare. But the fact is that you are more likely to see a dog or a cat in the Galapagos than a giant tortoise or a marine iguana.

The smuggling in of pets as companions to the growing human population of these islands is blatantly open. Pure-bred dogs are being brought in as status symbols. Puppies are being born all the time; same story with cats. They come in on fishing vessels, in the bags of passengers at the airport, or with cargo boats. In fact, it is easier to smuggle a kitten or a puppy into the islands than an orange or a banana. The authorities are strict on fruits and vegetables, but irresponsibly lax on exotics.

When we first became involved in working with the Galapagos National Park in 2000, it was common to see marine iguanas and large blue herons walking on the sidewalks through town. The relatively few cars stopped to let them walk across the street. Little lava lizards darted across the sidewalks without fear.

It’s only been a few short years since then, but those days are gone. There are now twice as many people and three times as many cars on the islands. There are no iguanas sunning themselves on the sidewalk, and any heron that strolls across the street will most likely become road-kill.

My crew once did a bike trip from the Baltra ferry landing to Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island, where we counted over 1,100 birds struck and killed in a 20 mile stretch of road. The birds, unfamiliar with cars, simply do not move from the path of an oncoming vehicle. Based on what we saw in one bike trip on that road, I would estimate that bird the mortality rate on that slaughterhouse of a roadway is between 100,000 to 250,000 avian road-kills annually.

We saw something else on that road–numerous feral cats–which means that even more birds and lizards end their days as cat food.

A few years ago, Sea Shepherd Conservation Society entered into a partnership with a San Francisco-based group called Animal Balance. We assisted them in transporting tons of veterinary equipment from the United States to the Enchanted Islands of the Galapagos. Sea Shepherd crewmembers like Allison Lance worked to round up feral cats and dogs for volunteer veterinarians to spay and neuter.

An idea of the extent of the problem can be seen in the numbers. Between 2004 and 2007, a total of 3,377 cats and 3,484 dogs were sterilized on all the islands. These numbers do not reflect the real population of illegal pets, because many were not brought into the free clinic–many of the fishermen import purebreds for breeding purposes.

Animal Balance manages to keep the flood waters of dog and cat populations from exploding somewhat, but not totally, because they are fighting a losing battle as long as the government refuses to crack down on the Special Law for the Galapagos which strictly (on paper at least) prohibits dogs and cats on the islands.

Last summer, I spoke directly with the Vice President of Ecuador about the need to remove all dogs and cats from the Galapagos. He agreed that we should, but there has been no action taken to date.

Allison Lance has personally removed four dogs and two cats from the islands and has found homes for them. She is working with shelters in North America on a plan to find homes for more dogs and cats.

But a large scale plan must be developed, and I told the Vice President that Sea Shepherd would assist is transporting dogs and cats off the islands if and when the government decides to enforce the law and order the removal of all exotic pets from the Galapagos World Heritage site.

Some people are critical of removing dogs and cats, reasoning that it is not the fault of the animals. We agree it is not their fault, and that is why we have been looking at a humane solution of live capture or seizure and transportation. But the rights of the native species must take priority.

Animal Balance is returning to the Galapagos in September 2008 to continue its program of spaying and neutering cats and dogs. Sea Shepherd is committed to working with Animal Balance to address this very important ecological issue in the Galapagos.

Dogs are attacking and killing marine iguanas, land iguanas, birds, and lizards. Cats are killing birds and lizards. Thousands of predators, many of which become feral, are a serious threat to the survival of the fauna of the Galapagos National Park.

Dogs have also attacked and killed young sea lions and Galapagos seals. Even more alarming is that these animals bring in diseases, and canine distemper is easily transmitted from dogs to seals.

When people ask me what does removing cats and dogs from the Galapagos have to do with defending marine wildlife, the answer is–everything. Because of the introduction and proliferation of exotics like dogs and cats, unique Galapagos species could be wiped out.

The Special Law for the Galapagos specifically prohibits dogs and cats. Sea Shepherd is calling on Ecuador to enforce the law, and Sea Shepherd is ready to work with the government to find a humane and nonlethal solution to this problem.

Captain PAUL WATSON is founder and president of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society www.seashepherd.org