The Trouble with Dogs on the Galapagos

Blue-Footed Boobies and Siberian Huskies
By Ketzel Levine, June 2011

For canines, 1835 was a banner year. The centuries-old sport of bull-baiting — pitting dogs against bulls — was outlawed in England. Breeding began that year for a dog we call the Golden Retriever. And in the fall of ’35, the dogged ship, HMS Beagle, dropped anchor in a zoological paradise, with a young naturalist on board who would later ignite the world of science.

Charles Darwin had no Beagle when he stepped foot on the Galapagos Islands, but visit today and you might see more of them than you will bluefooted boobies. It’s actually against the law to bring animals to the islands, but if you want a Golden Retriever, you can easily smuggle one in. Rest assured, you’ll see no bull-baiting, but you might find a hunting dog gored by a boar.

Welcome to the Galapagos nobody wants to know.

“People think the islands are the most pristine, untouched places on Earth,” says Tod Emko, who first visited the Galapagos in 2008. “That no one’s allowed to live there. They have no idea.”

Five of the dozen-plus islands in this Ecuadorean archipelago are inhabited by an estimated 30,000 people. Living among them is an unknowable number of dogs. Their marginal existence, in and of itself, is hardly unusual. But these are the Galapagos Islands, where the one-of-a-kind species Darwin studied in the 19th century — birds, tortoises, sea lions, iguanas — now co-exist with canines, “a predatory species,” explains Emko, “among benign, easyto- catch prey. Dogs are dangerous to the ecosystem. And in danger themselves.”

It’s tough to imagine a breed less suited to equatorial heat than the Siberian Husky, once a status symbol among the well-to-do. No longer. Cast-out Huskies are now the most common street dogs. Chows, German Shepherds, Dalmatians and all these dogs’ myriad offspring struggle without fresh water, starve among lava rocks, suffer from parvo and distemper, and eat island lizards — an offense punishable by death.

Enough bad news? Tod Emko’s thoughts exactly. After working in the Galapagos with Animal Balance, a group that specializes in mass sterilization, Emko took the initiative. First, he distributed a survey to the islands’ residents. “Should there be an animal hospital on the Galapagos?” The response was stunning and unanimous: Yes.

Then, he went into action. Emko, a computer programmer based in NYC, teamed up with former Legal Aid lawyer Andrea Gordon. She’d come to know the Galapagos through her ongoing work with the oceanic conservation society Sea Shepherd. In spring 2010, the two launched Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD), a nonprofit that supports modest veterinary clinics on Santa Cruz, San Cristóbal and Isabela Islands, places where animal services have been as scarce as albatross.

“We’re overwhelmed,” says Emko. “People are coming into the clinic voluntarily, saying, ‘We heard you speak at a local school. We heard of you via the grapevine.’ We’re very encouraged.”

By and large, international nonprofits such as DAD have shown that with easy access to vet care and humane education, people can and will take better care of their companion animals. Care and compassion for homeless animals is a much tougher sell. Euthanasia still trumps spay and neuter as a population control method on the Galapagos, where concepts such as foster and adoption remain the stuff of dreams.

Fortunately, animal activist Allison Lance dreams big. “Our work in the Galapagos seems insurmountable,” she says, “but we have the fight in us to preserve the most amazing place on this planet.”

Lance, a warrior of a woman, hasn’t sat still for 25 years. Her campaigns have taken her from poultry farms in Washington state to the icebergs of Antarctica. While a senior Sea Shepherd staff member, Lance literally freed dolphins from Japanese nets. As Tod Emko will tell you, “Very few human beings do in their lifetime what Allison has done in each year of her life.”

In 2004, after a decade working with others in the Galapagos, Lance began her own animal rescue work: crating up strays and buying them tickets to her Pacific Northwest home. Her first dog was Kiki, the outlaw of San Cristóbal Island, infamous for preying on local iguanas. Kiki scored big time. Says Lance, “She is fat and sassy and now lives with me.”

A few years and a few dozen rescues after Kiki, Lance expanded the scope of her work on the archipelago and founded the Galapagos Preservation Society (GPS). Its mission is to protect the islands’ fragile ecosystems and endemic species by humanely removing and rehoming non-native animals.

It’s a huge agenda, admits Lance, one that defies a single solution or a single organization. Not surprisingly, GPS works closely with DAD. Their shared approaches include introducing humane education into Galapagos schools, organizing spay-and-neuter campaigns, and getting animals in need adopted or off-island. GPS is also building alliances to check the smuggling of status breeds onto the Galapagos. They’re building dog fences, too. The fences offer families a way to keep their own “Kiki” safe from harm, while keeping everything else safe from Kiki.

It’s an exhausting, do-good agenda. And doesn’t Danielle Thompson know it. She’s the executive director of GPS and she’s nobody’s Pollyanna. Getting local government to support GPS programs, she says, “is like pulling teeth.”

“There’s a history of foreign groups handing out money to start programs,” says Thompson, “yet not engaging the local community. So nothing changes. The goal is to get people to want to make the changes themselves.”

In truth, neither Allison Lance of GPS nor Tod Emko of DAD believes any domestic animals, including humans, belong on the Galapagos. Given a voice, the islands’ Huskies, Shepherds, Retrievers and Beagles wouldn’t want to be there, either. It’s a place best suited to the creatures who evolved naturally in that zoological paradise. With all due respect to those astonishing residents, the Galapagos aren’t fit for a dog.

Ketzel Levine is NPR Senior Correspondent for "Morning Edition" and has reported on everything from the restored prairie at the Bush ranch to the 100th anniversary of Madam Butterfly.