First of three parts
Oct. 23, 2003 – Somebody on St. Thomas murdered a dog last week. They tied it to a cinder block on a 3-foot tether, and dropped it into the sea.
Somebody on St. Croix rode a bicycle into a yard where children were playing with their dog two weeks ago. The person shot and killed the animal in front of the children, and rode away.
On St. John last week, a Labrador retriever was found almost dead in public trash bin in Coral Bay. The dog had been shot, and tossed in there to die.
In another trash bin on St. John, somebody had placed a box of live kittens, taped shut. They were discovered in time and taken to the island's animal shelter. It was too late for the dog.
The people committing these criminal acts are living among us. All of them are dangerous. Their lack of respect for life, whether human or animal, is frightening to others. Any of these attacks could as easily been on a human being; volumes of research testify that animal abuse is a first step toward violent attacks on humans.
In the last month on St. Croix, wild dogs attacked and killed three pigs. Another group of dogs attacked and blinded an endangered green sea turtle on a beach.
A woman vacationing on St. Thomas earlier this year was attacked by three dogs as she was taking a stroll on the beach at Magens Bay.
About three months ago, a large dog was found hanging from a tree on the North Side of St. Thomas. It was reportedly there for several days before anyone called authorities.
Sadly, these are not isolated incidents. Animal abuse is a fact of life in the Virgin Islands.
St. Croix compares to places five times its population
"These cases aren't monthly, or even weekly — they are almost on a daily basis," Paul Chakroff, St. Croix Animal Welfare Center executive director, says. "Yesterday, somebody dropped off a cute little German shepherd puppy who had been poisoned, probably rat poison. She was bleeding from the gums. We took her to the vet, but it was too late."
Chakroff — director of a Columbus, Ohio, animal shelter for 16 years — came to St. Croix last year to replace long-time center executive director Mary Edwards, who still does volunteer work.
The incidence of animal abuse and animal attacks on St. Croix is "totally unacceptable" and "inordinately high by comparison to the Columbus shelter," he says. And, even more sobering, "in my review of the numbers over previous years, we don't seem to be making any headway. They are not significantly decreasing."
Chakroff was at the center when the dog that was shot in front of the children was brought in. "Somebody had ridden up on a bike about 6 p.m. where they were playing and shot their dog," he says. "The other kids were in the car, but a girl came in with the dog, and she was beside herself — there was a lot of love between them. She is only about 8 or 9 years old."
This, as Chakroff says, is not the exception; it's the rule.
To him, the number of stray and unwanted animals on St. Croix is startling in comparison with other communities of comparable size."On a daily basis, my estimate is we are dealing with the same number of a city five times our size in the states," he says.
"More than 5,000 animals pass through our doors each year," he says. "I looked at the number treated at 30 organizations in the states and the metro areas they are servicing, and I discovered that for 5,000 animals we should have a population of somewhere around 250,000 instead of 53,000, St. Croix's population."
He points out: "That's not scientific; it's a rough estimate." But scientific or not, the numbers are especially sobering in light of the fact that all three islands have free, or very low-cost, spaying and neutering programs for cats and dogs.
On St. Croix, the service is available free to anyone who cannot afford to pay. "We have no minimum fee," Chakroff says. "We don't want money to restrict somebody from bringing their animals in. We accept donations, and the donations subsidize those who cannot afford it. Our vets charge a nominal fee, less than half" the going rate. The center even will provide transportation for those who need it.
The program is showing results. "We're looking at 1,050 animals that have been altered in the last year, and I'm projecting more than 1,200 this year," Chakroff says. "It's 'way above what we have done in previous years. Our best year before this we did 985."
The numbers have far, far greater significance. According to the American Humane Association, two dogs who mate can result over a seven year period in the birth of 4,372 puppies. Two cats who mate can over the same period bring about 420,715 kittens.
St. Thomas intake down, spay/neuter numbers up
On St. Thomas, the numbers are significantly lower because of a smaller animal population. But they are just as grim. "We average about 2,500 stray and unwanted animals a year," Lisa Walker, interim director of the Humane Society of St. Thomas, says. "That's down from many years ago. It used to be about 250 a month; now it's about 203."
About 1,875 animals a year end up being euthanized, according to Walker. "Those are scary figures," she says, "but not all of those animals are adoptable. They include all the wild cats we trap, and the feral dogs."
The St. Thomas group's "Spay Day" program, started in 2000, has helped reduce the island's unwanted animal population. The Humane Society has a low-cost spay/neuter program throughout the year, but on "Spay Day," the services are offered for free. The first year, 300 certificates for altering were handed out. Last year, the number was up to 507. (See "Dog and cat lovers make 2nd Spay Day a success".)
Walker says some people pick up certificates and then attempt to catch feral animals and bring them in, not always an easy task. She says it took her and two friends a year and a half to catch a female cat at Magens Bay — who had three litters in the meantime.
Last year, the shelter did 97 operations; this year, without a Spay Day program, they have already done 145. Walker hopes to have another of the certificate giveaway days soon.
The shelter's regular program costs $35, but built into that program are 10 free operations a month for animals of the neediest people. " If people can't afford the $35, we will take $10 or $15 if that's what they have," Walker says.
Captive animals left to suffer
Hubert Brumant, the Humane Society shelter's animal care manager, says things haven't changed in the years he has been at the shelter, except that people are calling to report more cases of animal abuse. "Recently we've been getting calls about animals left behind as a result of someone leaving the island and not taking their dogs," he says.
A couple of weeks ago, Brumant jumped over a fence to rescue a dog who had been left behind starving to death. "The owner later told me he was off-island for five days and someone was supposed to have fed the dog." he says. "I told him no way could that animal have gotten that way in five days. We are trying to prosecute him. We have the dog here trying to find a home for him."
And he tells of a dog that was starving in Tutu. "A couple days ago, I went to see him. The dog was on a heavy chain with a lock on the collar and a lock on the other end. No food, no water. The dog was thin as plywood."
"It's very sad," he says. "Livestock farmers leave cows tied in the savannah with no water. When I talked to the vet, he said they could withstand the heat, but with the sun that hot, you can't. If that's not cruelty, I don't know what you ca
According to Walker, "The bulk of what we see is serious neglect. Most people would call it abuse — so many cases of tied up and abandoned animals, literally skeletons. Neighbors will call and report them — animals in outside cages without food or water for months.
"The saddest thing for me is to see how anxious they are to get petted, a kind word. They look up and say, 'Oh please pet me, love me, do something nice to me.'"
St. John relies almost entirely on volunteers
Johanna Chawziuk, executive director and the only official employee of the St. John Animal Care Center, which opened in March, estimates that each year "we probably take in about 150 cats and 75 dogs." The shelter is run by a group of dedicated volunteers who also care for the island's substantial population of feral cats, making certain they are fed and spayed and neutered.
The shelter holds a weekly spay and neuter session, but it's just for the feral bush cats, to try to control the population. The group also has feeding stations all over the island for the cats.
Chawziuk says a feeding station in Coral Bay was unbolted from the tree it was on. "We had it high up on the tree so the pigs couldn't get to it," she explains. "But somebody took it down. I've had people tell me 'Cats are nasty.'"
She believes that the Labrador was shot and thrown into the trash bin "likely because somebody thought it was bothering his goats." The animal "was mostly dead when we found it," she says, and had to be euthanized.
St. John has the same animal abuse and neglect issues that the other islands have, but it doesn't have the shelter staffing to handle all the cases. "These islands are so beautiful," Chawziuk says, "but look at the way people take care of their animals."
The way people treat animals is closely associated with the way people treat each other, all of the shelter workers agree. And research bears that out. (See the "Animal Spirit" Web site.)
"It's a huge problem," Chakroff says, "and it's reflected in many areas of our community and society. I don't know if the crime statistics are five times a comparable U.S. city, but it wouldn't surprise me. The thing that really concerns me is the correlation between animal abuse and domestic violence and sexual assault."
This is not a new concept, he points out. Eight hundred years ago, St. Francis of Assisi wrote: "If you have men who will exclude any of God's creature from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men."
Conference to look at abuse links
Chakroff says he has stacks of documents showing that animal abuse is measurable alongside domestic violence. In fact, he is currently soliciting support for a conference to be held on St. Croix next May to discuss the relationship between "animal abuse and interpersonal abuse."
The conference, set for May 20-22 at The Buccaneer Hotel, will be for the entire Caribbean, he says. With sponsorship by The Pegasus Foundation, which provides private, independent support for animal and environmental initiatives, along with the U.S. Humane Society and the International Human Society, the program will cover a myriad of animal issues.
One day's focus will be on counseling for animal shelter employees and for members of human advocacy groups such at the Women's Coalition of St. Croix "who frequently need counseling, themselves." The second day will concentrate on the correlation between animal abuse and interpersonal abuse. The third day will be strictly for shelter employees, including information on spay and neuter programs.
"We are working on a developing a counseling program," Chakroff says. He says he would like to be able to help the grief-stricken young girl whose dog was killed before her eyes.
Chakroff and Brumant met recently with Sen. Adlah "Foncie" Donastorg, sponsor of the failed animal anti-cruelty legislation from the 24th Legislature. The bill, among other things, sought to make first-degree animal abuse a felony punishable by a fine of not less than $1,000 and up to five years in jail. (See "Pickard-Samuel, Bryan kill animal-rights bill".)
Donastorg, who has been trying to get the measure passed since 2001, is revising it now and says he will submit the new version to the Government Operations Committee soon.
Next: Positive actions including educational outreach to children about animal care; anti-cruelty legislation elsewhere and what local advocates see as needed changes in the V.I. law.
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