Anyone who knows me also knows that I am a H-U-G-E dog lover. Not just “hey dogs are OK” sort of person, but the type bordering on obsessed. While my pack is holding steady at just two (one of the many concessions of marriage), if it were up to me I would move to the kunuku (the local version of a farm) and adopt all the island dogs that needed a home here. Next stop…crazy old dog lady. Whatever. Seems like a pretty good option.
Yet my absolute love of dogs also causes me a lot of anguish here in the Caribbean. And almost daily I am reminded of why living in the tropics can be such a heartbreaking thing. Look beyond the palm tree-laced white sand beaches and spectacular sunsets the tourism bureau wants you to see and you’ll discover a not-so-nice secret. The depressing life of many island dogs.
You see, dogs here are not always viewed with the same “part of the family” mentality that most island transplants hold near and dear to their hearts. The things we take for granted – regular grooming, trips to the vet, proper heartworm and tick treatments, daily walks, high-quality dog food and treats – are simply not part of the average island dog’s existence. Which in and of itself is reason enough to feel sad.
But it gets worse. Because one thing I’ve learned in my years on this island is that far too many people here view dogs as a piece of property. An interchangeable one at that. And that attitude takes some significant getting used to. If you ever can get used to such things.
I’ve stopped to help dogs who, after being hit by a car, were simply left to die in the middle of the road, the driver long gone. I’ve witnessed hostile owners viciously drag their pup by the neck (with the dog making it damn clear he didn’t want to go) back into the house or garden. I’ve seen countless dogs roaming the streets in ad hoc packs, scavenging for a bite to eat – some street savvy, some not so much. The latter are usually the ones limping, presumably after a brush with a speeding vehicle or a quarrel with another dog.
Even my two adopted island dogs have sad stories to tell about their starts in life. They, of course, were some of the lucky ones. Adopted by a crazy American lady who treats them like her children – overprotective to a fault, actually.
You cannot escape the reality of how dogs are treated in the islands. Even by the initially well-meaning. After all, most everyone knows someone who – after deciding island life was not for them – simply up and abandoned the island dogs they adopted upon arriving here. Some actually make the effort to take their no-longer-wanted dogs to the shelter. Other more heartless escapees simply kick the dogs out onto the street, close the garden gate and never look back.
It makes me really sad…and angry. And it also makes me determined to make a difference whenever I can.
Which is why, when a friendly puppy showed up outside my garden gate recently (we live on a fairly busy road), all plans for the day stopped and I began “Operation Puppy Rescue.” He was all too eager to jump into my arms and let me bring him inside the safety of our garden. He was also more than happy to make himself at home, enjoying some food and water and even playing with one of my dogs. (My other dog is a bit more selective in who she likes – wait, she doesn’t actually like anyone except her pack. She’s a “special” dog, for sure.)
And while the nameless puppy made himself comfortable, I began searching for the owner he clearly had. He had a collar (too tight) but no ID tag. Posts went up on Facebook and were quickly shared. Calls were made. A trip to the vet for possible chip scanning was completed. With no luck. No chip. No idea where he belonged. Meanwhile, the work plans I had for the morning quickly evaporated.
Eventually, as often happens here, somebody on Facebook did recognize the sweet pup. Which initially was great news. Until I learned that this sweet boy also had a sister of the same age and both were well-known on a nearby street as regularly escaping the garden and running loose. Animal welfare had already spoken to the dogs’ owner several times and met with the same excuses time and again. “I’m just renting this house and cannot fix the situation. They just keep getting out.”
Which illustrates the basic problem here. Some people just don’t give a damn. In their minds, if their dog gets hit and killed by a car or simply disappears, they’ll just get another one. After all, supply far outweighs demand here in the Caribbean when it comes to puppies.
Armed with the knowledge of where this sweet pup lived, I enlisted the help of Island Boy and we took the dog home. Nobody was there, so we opened the gate and put him inside where his sister happily greeted him. He promptly jumped over the garden wall and followed us as we walked away. Twice.
Neither of us are huge fans of entering someone else’s garden uninvited, but that seemed the only option. We needed to find a way to keep him from going over the wall again and running loose on the busy road. Unfortunately, we found it in the form of two chains wrapped around the metal poles of a lean-to shelter in the back of the ramshackle house. We cleaned out two bowls and made sure both dogs had fresh water, and a dry, shady spot to lie down.
But it really sucks to know that such sweet dogs are going to live a life confined like that. It was super hard to walk away, leaving him and his sister tethered to chains, surrounded by squalor. I cried and Island Boy seethed (in his 20 years here, he’s moved well beyond sad into downright angry territory when it comes to how dogs are often treated here). But we both understand the concept of “property” on this island. And there is only so far you can go, especially as an expat (a broad group that isn’t really wanted here anyway by some). There was not much more we could do, even though we wanted to rescue these two puppies on the spot.
And that is the sad reality of many island dogs’ lives here on Bonaire. I suspect this is true on many Caribbean islands, but I prefer not to think about it. It is simply too depressing.
All I can say to anyone planning to make the move to the tropics is to prepare yourself for the inevitable heartbreak (and sometimes frustration or even anger) you will feel when it comes to island dogs. You will likely see stray dogs of all shapes and sizes wandering along the roadside. You will see dogs who do have homes looking homeless and uncared for and roaming in unsafe situations. You will see dead dogs abandoned on the roadside more often than you’d imagine. And, if you’re dumb enough to follow your island’s various animal welfare pages on Facebook (like I do), every day you will be reminded of the harsh conditions that constitute an island dog’s life in the tropics.
And as long as I’m spilling the secrets about the life of island dogs, there’s one more thing to note.
If you happen to choose Bonaire as your island home, you will also quickly discover that even dog lovers who treat their animals well face some bizarrely dog-unfriendly policies here – like no dogs on the beaches. I wish I were kidding, but am not. An all-out ban on dogs on every beach, whether the dogs are on a leash or not. They are simply not welcome anywhere there is sand and surf on this rock. #wtf
Also, if you enjoy walking your dogs (who doesn’t?), you will have to pick your routes carefully here. Between the stray dogs and the aggressive dogs who can easily leap over their garden walls (and often do, with owners who don’t see what the big deal is), most walks end up being more like a scene from a Mad Max movie, with you doing the defensive fleeing in an attempt to protect yourself and your pups. Not fun.
Now I know that these situations also exist in the US. I’m not naive. But what is different is that, in general, the percentage of instances to the population is much lower. It is also something you don’t see on a day-to-day basis nor is it condoned. In the areas of the US where I lived, dogs were well cared for and stray/loose dogs were the exception, not the norm. You could also walk your dog without fear of either of you being mauled. I took that for granted. Until I moved here.
And while I fully understand that my rock is not the US or Europe (and I usually don’t ask it to be), when it comes to dogs – and animal welfare & attitudes here – I really wish it would try just a little harder.
Ok…so the dog situation may sound a tad depressing, right? But there are things you can do to help! Every island has at least one animal welfare organization or shelter doing exceptional things to improve the lives of island animals. Donations (cash or goods) are always appreciated, as is volunteer time when you’re on the island. Most organizations are more than happy to have visitors walk the dogs and cuddle the cats. It is amazing what a little time and attention will do for the animals waiting to be adopted. You can also adopt an island dog or cat, too. The ultimate way to help!
Got questions? Want to know more about island life? Thinking about making a big life change (whether that includes an island or not)? I’d love to hear from you. Check out this post for details or simply send your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org and let’s connect.