“I contacted Tom,” she recalls, “just wanting to make a donation. He came to visit at about 10 AM and stayed until after midnight.” What was the best way to do fund-raising, he asked, and did she know any veterinarians who would be willing to come to Rarotonga to treat animals? From this discussion—and a few dozen more over the years—a free clinic was born, staffed by volunteer veterinarians from all over the world. The main mission is to spay and neuter, but no animal is turned away. Every year or so, “vet treks” are organized, in which veterinarians and vet students travel to one of the other 15 Cook Islands to sterilize dogs and cats, using picnic tables, community centers and churches as their surgical suites.
Anunsen keeps track of how many animals are treated. Since Rarotonga had never done a canine census, she has no way of quantifying the effects of the clinic’s work. But she knows that residents report that dogs are being treated better, and she has other evidence: When she first got there, stores didn’t carry dog food—the island’s dogs ate garbage, coconuts and fish they caught. Now, the stores carry canned dog food and kibble.
Dog food sales may be an odd way to measure success, but it’s one tangible marker. India looked at the number of rabies cases, other communities count complaints or dog-bite reports. However, actual counts of dog populations are rare to nonexistent. The priority placed on doing something seems to overwhelm the effort required to prove that what is being done is effective. Which means, unfortunately, that there are no real guidelines for what works and what doesn’t. For example, do you need to sterilize two-thirds of the animal population, or just two-thirds of the females? Or, do you need to sterilize all dogs, or just dogs with homes, since strays often don’t have the nutritional wherewithal to reproduce.
In Bora Bora, I counted dogs to try to get some baseline estimate, using what are essentially wildlife-monitoring techniques to statistically guess at population numbers. This lack of quantifiable data is also of particular concern to one of the leading practitioners of spay-and-neuter medicine, Eric Davis, DVM, director and founder of Rural Animal Veterinary Services (RAVS), which concentrates on serving this country’s rural areas, such as Native American reservations and Appalachian mountain communities.
“Who the heck knows how many dogs there were to begin with, and who knows how many dogs there were five years later?” he says. But to him, what is most shameful is the apparent lack of interest in this problem among the veterinary science community. As he points out, if as many dogs were dying of a disease as are euthanized as strays, attention would be paid and funding for research would be forthcoming. Instead, there is little to none of either. “You look in veterinary journals and try to find articles on population statistics for dogs and the effects of spay and neuter—they are nonexistent.”
The veterinary community is not entirely remiss, however. There has been considerable research into nonsurgical alternatives. The most anticipated is immuno-contraception, which uses a vaccine against the egg, sperm or reproductive hormones; several methods have been tried, and one is available in Australia. Another is Neutersol™, a chemical that, when injected, destroys sperm-producing cells permanently. Any of these would vastly increase the numbers of dogs or cats it would be possible to sterilize.
By whatever means, sterilization promises not just population control but other more abstract but equally important results. It is the contention of activists such as Merritt Clifton, editor and publisher of Animal People and a spay-and-neuter advocate, that by simply making dogs scarce, we can increase their value. And if dogs live longer, people will bond with them and learn to care about them. Not to mention that by setting an example by volunteering, and by the care we expend on the animal’s behalf, we can inspire others to care as well. All are good reasons to do what we are doing.
The real reason we do these things is more simple. As I look at Jacqueline, who is so patient with my cat-control deficiencies, I know that really, there is one reason I am there. As Davis said: “If I can make the life of one dog better, if I can keep one female from a short life of endless pregnancies and starvation, then I’ve done enough.”