Jan. 28, 2004 — All is not well at the Southgate Pond Nature Reserve, especially for the federally endangered Least tern, a ground-nesting bird that uses the pond during the dry season to nest. Last year nearly 95 percent of the birds' nests were destroyed, primarily by stray dogs searching for food.
In 2000, the St. Croix Environmental Association established the now 100-acre reserve — located on the north side of the East End Road between Cheeseburgers in Paradise and Chenay Bay Beach Resort — to protect the birds and other wildlife that use the pond and surrounding habitat. In addition to a variety of birds, the reserve is also home to endangered sea turtles (especially the green turtle) which use the beach as a nesting site. Deer and iguanas also can be found on the property.
According to SEA's interim executive director, Carol Cramer-Burke, "the wildlife there needs to be free from harassment." Currently that's not the case.
Cramer-Burke says the stray dog problem "has been going on for years and is well documented." Although the adult Least terns try to defend their nests by swooping down on predators or defecating on them, Cramer-Burke says, "it's little deterrent to feral dogs."
Claudia Lombard, a wildlife biological technician with the local division of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, is conducting a study at the reserve, monitoring the breeding productivity of the Least tern. She has been in close contact with SEA officials, keeping them apprised of the situation.
Unfortunately, Lombard says, the birds are "not doing well," primarily because of the feral dogs.
In order to protect the wildlife at the reserve, SEA has partnered with the St. Croix Animal Welfare Center and Progressive Veterinary Clinic in an effort to capture the stray dogs — and even stray cats, who attack White-cheeked Pintail ducks.
Trapping dogs at the reserve
According to V.I. law, "any animal found running at large shall be taken up by animal wardens and impounded in an animal shelter." Paul Chakroff, Animal Welfare Center executive director, says that in the next few weeks, three or four humane live-traps will be placed at the reserve to help reduce the stray population. Both Chakroff and Cramer-Burke said the trapping would be done humanely. Traps will be checked two to three times daily by both Chakroff and Progressive Veterinary employees and will only be placed in areas of shade.
Every dog and cat that's caught will be evaluated at the center within 48 hours to determine its aggressiveness and potential for adoption, Chakroff says. Licensed dogs and those that are in good condition and appear to have owners will be held for a minimum of five days, while other dogs will be held for at least three days. "We want to treat strays well and get them back to their owners," Cramer-Burke says.
An islandwide problem
While talking about the new stray capture program, Chakroff is quick to point out that the problem isn't limited to the reserve: There are literally thousands of strays all over St. Croix. A large part of the blame falls squarely on the shoulders of dog owners who allow their unneutered pets to run loose.
According to Chakroff, St. Croix with 53,000 residents has a stray dog population equivalent to that of an average U.S. city of 270,000 residents.
Last year, Chakroff says, the welfare center was forced to euthanize roughly 3,500 dogs. "There simply aren't enough homes for all the unwanted dogs," he explains.
Chakroff is hoping that number will come down, given the strides the animal shelter has made with its adoption and spay/neuter programs. Compared to last year, adoptions at the center are up by 250, and the spay/neuter program has seen a 20 percent increase compared to figures from two years ago.
Chakroff says that when he first arrived at the shelter, nearly all the dogs that came in were being euthanized. Fortunately, that's no longer the case, thanks in part to the center's Pets from Paradise program.
With the participation from animal shelters at seven different U.S. cities — including New York, Boston, and Philadelphia — Pets from Paradise is having success in placing many unwanted island dogs. "There is usually a waiting list for the Crucian critters, and by the time they arrive," Chakroff says, "they're already adopted."
The Paradise program is primarily limited to northern cities because their cold, harsh winters help to stem the population explosion of strays. Southern U.S. cities with mild winters, Chakroff says, are facing stray problems of their own and are consequently unable to accept any Crucian dogs for placement.
While the program is a step in the right direction, only young healthy dogs can be placed for adoption, and many breeds like Pit Bull terriers cannot be accepted.
Stray dogs present variety of problems
"The problem of strays isn't just an animal welfare problem; it's an environmental issue, a public safety issue, and even an economic issue," Chakroff says, adding that feral dogs are the No. 1 threat to sea turtles and endangered species such as the Least tern.
In addition, he notes that farmers on the island lose 30 percent of their livestock to feral dogs and that dog bites from vicious strays remain a problem.
But Chakroff remains positive. "It's wonderful to see the cooperation between all the various organizations — SEA, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Animal Welfare Center, and Progressive Veterinary Clinic," he says. "I think people are realizing that we need to come together to tackle this issue."
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