Led by Jacqueline, a small brown street dog, I walked the streets of Bora Bora. I had a purpose; so did she. Mine was to count dogs for a population estimate. Hers was to convince any cat foolish enough to show his face that keeping a low profile was wise. Jacqueline effectively yet benignly dispatched each one into hiding. Each time she did so, she looked back at me. By her expression I guessed that she appreciated I was there for back-up, but was a bit disappointed by my lack of enthusiasm.
I call Jacqueline a “street dog,” and by that I mean she is one of those ubiquitous dogs lining the streets of developing nations. Not quite stray, not quite owned, these dogs may have undetermined parentage but they probably aren’t mutts. Instead, they represent dog as “original dog”: Scientists now think they are the descendants of the first creatures who choose to depart the wild in favor of living with us. We are the “environment” to which they’ve adapted, and they have done so perfectly. They scope out the best sites for garbage, the safest routes across roads and which of us are the softest touch.
Street dogs are the reason I was in Bora Bora. This famously beautiful French Polynesian island is a resort paradise except for one thing: There are too many dogs. Tourists enjoy them, but they don’t like to see them sick, injured or neglected. Hotel managers often hear complaints, and can quote guests who swear they will never come back—“I can’t stand to see such suffering!” So places like Bora Bora realize that there are benefits to controlling dog populations: Fewer dogs mean fewer skeletal, lame, mangy blemishes on paradise.
I arrived as one of six veterinarians on a mission to spay and neuter as many dogs (and cats) as we could in one month. Our project was a combined effort of the US-based Esther Honey Foundation, the Tahiti-based Fenua Animalia and the local tourist commission, all of which were supported by Humane Society International (HIS) and the French Polynesian government. But in truth, the real people behind the project were a handful of local residents and a tourist or two who refused to sit by and do nothing. These few propelled the project past two years of bureaucratic hem-hawing, stalling and plain old uncertainty that dogs were important enough to be seen caring about.
There are, according to Kelly O’Meara of HIS, thousands of similar spay-and-neuter projects worldwide. Often on islands, often with tourism as incentive, many (if not most) are the result of a few local people stirring up support from other residents and tourists, and garnering the support of large international organizations like HIS and Pegasus International. While population control has long been an issue for these places, choosing humane and effective methods has not. For over a century, local governments have tended to wait for crises like disease outbreaks, fatal car accidents caused by dogs or just too many complaints of scattered garbage before they stepped in. Then, typically, they’ve chosen to use methods like shooting, poisoning or electrocution to deal with the problem.
These methods have had the benefit of being visible—people know their governments are acting—but besides being inhumane and dangerous (children have been poisoned, as have dogs with homes), they simply haven’t worked. Indeed, we have 150 years of experience proving they don’t work. It is a seemingly paradoxical fact that a sudden onslaught of canine killings results in a spurt in canine population growth. But there’s a rational reason for it: As adult dogs are removed from the population, competition for food is reduced, and the female dogs who survive these canine extermination efforts can sustain litters that would have otherwise died.