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Protecting all the species of
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Protecting all the species of the Galapagos Islands
The Galapagos Islands conjure up images of pre-historic looking creatures such as the infamous giant tortoises and aquatic marine iguanas. We've all learned about Charles Darwin's Theory of Evolution, and the Galapagos Islands are the premier place on the planet to see this concept first hand, including the amazing 13 species of Darwin's finches. However, some of 'the fittest' to survive on the islands are the cats and dogs. During the earliest years of exploration, they arrived on the islands with pirates and explorers. More recently, they came in abundance with immigrants that voyaged from the mainland of Ecuador. As the colonization of the islands progressed, so did the cat and dog population. Today, despite careful quarantine regulations, pets are still being smuggled onto the islands.

As the human population explodes on the Galapagos Islands, the garbage that is generated becomes a massive food source for the cats and dogs. The end result is that these well maintained animals reproduce very quickly and can threaten the delicate ecosystems, including the native species that have not adapted to defending themselves from predators.

Galapagos Inslands EcuadorIn trying to help the situation, authorities attempted to reduce the numbers of cats and dogs using poison. But the community quickly became very angry; after all, these were their pets! Authorities later discovered that destroying the animals as a form of population control only lasts for a short period of time. As the food source still existed, those that survived the poison would quickly regenerate the populations. Killing proved to be inefficient, cruel and expensive.

Realizing that killing was not the solution, the authorities needed another management plan to decrease the number cats and dogs and, at the same time, not harm any of them. In 2003, Animal Balance, a US based NGO, proposed an entirely new concept of animal population control through sterilization. Studies have shown that sterilizing 70% of the cat and dog populations would mean that their numbers would stabilize. If more than 70% are sterilized, this would result in an eventual decrease in numbers through natural attrition.

Though this methodology was commonly used in the US, it was rarely implemented in South America, and certainly not in a place where the habitat was so sensitive. Agreeing to such a program meant the cats and dogs would be accepted as a part of the community there and managed very carefully. Shortly after its proposal, Animal Balance signed a landmark agreement with the Galapagos National Park Service to implement the plan.

Animal Balance's goal was to ultimately provide the islands with the equipment, supplies and training to ensure the project was sustainable. But the project faced many challenges. They would have to raise the funds, collect donated equipment, ship the supplies to the islands, and recruit vets, technicians and volunteers to carry out the sterilization clinics.

Animal Balance quickly got to work and in a short year, they did all the above and partnered with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society who carried their supplies and equipment to the Galapagos Islands just in time for their first clinic!

What they hadn't anticipated was the community's mistrust of foreigners. Rumors had spread throughout the Galapagos that Animal Balance was going to kill their animals. Reacting in fear, the people hid their beloved pets and closed their doors.

Adapting to these new obstacles, Animal Balance continued on their gentle approach and held a public doggy bath in front of the Municipality. Volunteers laughed and bathed as many dogs they could, showing the community their commitment to the welfare of their pets. After witnessing such a spectacle, many stepped forward with their animals to be sterilized.

Today, four years since the start of the project, Animal Balance is now wrapping up and implementing their exit strategy. Three animal clinics have now been outfitted, four Ecuadorian veterinarians have been trained in spay and neuter techniques and the Municipality has taken the lead in the community encouraging people to have their pets sterilized.

In addition, the Municipality holds an annual census of the pets on each island. The latest data shows that of the 3,200 dogs and cats counted over the last three years, over 2900 have been sterilized and registered. Animal Balance volunteers and staff from the Municipality have held workshops on animal husbandry for many pet guardians who, until recently, did not have the resources to provide even the most minimal of care. For example, each person that has their dog sterilized is given a free collar and leash to further help control the dog and then they are encouraged to attend dog-training classes. These have been very popular and now people walk their dogs on leash in the towns and on the beach.

Galapagos InslandsThe connection to lasting conservation is clear. Sterilizing the domestic animals and thereby reducing their populations in conjunction with responsible pet guardianship, helps to protect the Galapagos' unique native animals. Better cared for animals are less likely to roam free and attack vulnerable species such as sea lions and marine iguanas. As the animals become healthier and better behaved the community starts to view their animals as pets and keeps them in their homes. The human-animal bond increases and the cat or dog becomes part of the family.

As an ever-increasing number of humans move to, visit and use its natural resources, the Galapagos Islands ecosystem bends and buckles under the strain. It is imperative that community orientated programs gather momentum and implement very practical solutions whose success emerges from the collaboration of all the local organizations.

Animal Balance would like to thank the 180 international volunteers, the Galapagos Municipalities, the Park, the local police and quarantine authorities and the amazingly hospitable and kind people of the islands.

Animal Balance now plans to use this project as a blueprint for similar initiatives around the world. Through the humane management of pet populations, they not only save lives, but also teach compassion and respect for all life.

Text by: Emma Clifford
Photos by: Buffy Redsecker