A regular Source feature, Undercurrents slips below the surface of Virgin Islands daily routines and assumptions to explore in greater depth the beauty, the mystery, the murky and the disregarded familiar. It is our bid to get to know the community more deeply.
Last month an elementary school student became an accident victim when she unwittingly ventured too close to traffic as she tried to avoid a menacing group of dogs. Gratefully, the injuries that sent her to the hospital were not life-threatening.
But the incident dramatically highlighted a problem that territory residents have been living with for years: dogs roaming free and banning together into temporary or permanent packs, harassing smaller animals, livestock and, occasionally, people.
Experts say the blame rests primarily with pet owners who allow their animals to wander and who fail to spay and neuter them, resulting in succeeding generations of “bush dogs.”
The phenomenon is territorywide, and the government contracts with animal care nonprofit organizations to deal with it.
Currently the problem seems to be most acute on St. Croix. Marsden Burke, operations manager for the Animal Welfare Center, said its Animal Control Pick Up van goes out “every single day” to pick up strays. Between the animals that are trapped and captured and the unwanted pets dropped off at the shelter, he said, “We’re seeing 20 dogs a day.”
Additionally, he said, “We’re finding carcasses all over the street” of animals that couldn’t make it in the wild.
If the numbers sound unbelievable, consider this: A female dog that is not spayed can have six litters in her lifetime. Typically there are several pups in a litter and each is capable of reproducing by 6 to 12 months of age, setting off an exponential population explosion. At least theoretically, if no other factors such as disease come into play, a single female can be responsible for the production of up to 7,000 dogs. “We’ve got a little graph” illustrating the numbers, Burke said.
While there’s long been an overabundance of stray dogs on St. Croix, Burke said the Hovensa oil refinery closing earlier this year has caused an uptick. Many suddenly jobless people are leaving island and leaving their pets behind to fend for themselves.
The situation is not as bad, but certainly not good, on the other islands.
“It definitely is a problem,” said Kate Webster, the new manager of the Animal Care Center on St. John. “I don’t think there’s a lot of feral dogs,” she said. In most cases “they are initially someone’s pets.”
On St. Thomas, Phyllis Rogers has worked for the Humane Society for 15 years. She’s the kennel supervisor and does “whatever needs to be done,” including stray animal control.
“I would say (the situation) has calmed down just a little” in recent years, she said. But she’s still busy.
Currently she’s tracking two “situations.” In one case, an individual keeps 12 dogs on his property but they are not confined in any way, so they roam through the surrounding areas, destroying garbage bins, making messes on people’s property, attacking other animals and intimidating people.
“There’s no law here. You can have as many animals as you want,” she said. Of course, when owners are confronted, they frequently deny that they own the roaming dogs.
The other case involves the dogs that apparently chased the school girl. A number of them live uncontrolled in an open area near a trailer parked in the bush across from the El Cabana bar in Smith Bay. The Human Society has set out traps both in the past and in response to the most recent incident.
“In that area there’s a lot of dogs that do attack people,” Rogers said. “If they think you’re walking too close to their area, they will rush you.”
Marsden can relate. St. Croix’s Frederiksted area is particularly problematic.
“There are dogs there that have become very territorial,” he said. People report that they can’t leave their homes to go to work, can’t go to the park, can’t take the garbage out to the bin, for fear of dog attack.
Some dogs spend their entire lives as strays, and at one point or another become part of a pack. Others are abandoned by their owners and join up. Still others are active pets but if they are let loose, they may hang with a group of dogs for a few hours, a day or overnight before returning home.
“A dog may be fine by itself,” said Rhea Vasconcellos, Humane Society shelter manager. “Once it gets in a pack, it gets the pack mentality.”
That is to say, it becomes aggressive and works with the other dogs to hunt. Vasconcellos knows all too well because someone left the gate to her property open one day and her own dog ventured out, paired up with another and attacked a neighbor’s goats.
“It’s instinct,” said Kristen Jetzke, veterinarian technician. Two or more dogs working together will encircle their prey, stalk it, corner it and then attack. The prey may be “goats, iguanas, cats, chickens, rats, smaller dogs sometimes.” For the truly feral dogs, Jetzke said it’s “a fight for their life.”
“This is how they feed,” she said.
And that’s the other side of the problem.
“Dogs can’t really survive too long on their own,” said veterinarian Dr. Andrew Williamson. They are plagued by parasites, disease and slow starvation.
So it’s a lose-lose situation.
The solution, according to experts, is preventing pets from roaming, even for short times, and limiting the dog populations. The shelters on all three islands promote education about animal care and sponsor programs to help mitigate the cost of spaying and neutering pets.
For information about spay and neuter assistance, call the Animal Welfare Center on St. Croix at 778-1650; the Humane Society of St. Thomas at 775-0599; or the Animal Care Center on St. John at 774-1625.