Preface: I have had the honor of consulting for Emma Clifford and the Animal Balance team. Emma is our first visiting blog author to write about their experiences, especially relating to dog capture and handling. Many times, spay neuter organizations, with sincere intentions to reduce suffering, cause pain and injury for both dogs and people because of their struggles with capture and handling. In contrast, Animal Balance thoroughly did their homework and worked with compassionate energy with each dog even when their field work got tough. As we all learn in the field about our successes and challenges, it should be our goal to write, photograph, and film our experiences so that we can gather our knowledge and share it with others. I am grateful to Emma for sharing their story. My thanks to Paulina DeVelasco for her photos. Mark
My name is Emma Clifford and I am the Director of Animal Balance, www.animalbalance.org. We organize mobile high volume sterilization clinics for cats and dogs around the world. We focus on islands where the dogs and cats may pose a threat to native species, such as the Galapagos Islands, where the people cannot afford to sterilize their pets; Dominican Republic (DR); or where the dogs may pose a health risk, the Samoan Islands.
Approximately 25 international volunteer veterinarians, animal technicians, dog handlers and others who have a skill, or experience, in an area of animal protection, come together to form the Animal Balance teams. Our collective goal is to sterilize and treat the maximum number of cats and dogs in the time that they have on the island. Clinics are built in discos, pizza restaurants, gyms, meeting halls, wherever we can. We work in very remote areas so sometimes we use the tail of the pick up truck as the surgery table. We can set up a clinic anywhere and sterilize animals en masse. Our standard of care and protocols are of the highest standard. We sterilize owned, free roaming to feral cats and dogs. Their label does not matter; we sterilize them all for free in the communities where we work.
We are a humane organization and believe in only employing kind methods in managing cat and dog populations.
Round up and kill is not an option that should be considered. Sustainable management strategies have to involve high volume sterilization, humane educations, vet to vet and tech to tech training programs and dog training classes, where appropriate.
We can sterilize 400 plus animals in a week. Each dog and cat is given internal and external parasite treatments. If they have other ailments we treat those to the best of our ability. Each dog is given a tattoo and sometimes a microchip, depending on where we are working. They also receive a new collar and leash and are encouraged to come to dog training classes. We tip the cat’s ear and quite often they receive new collars too, thanks to Pet Food Express, who donate their old stock.
The dogs on the Galapagos and DR, for the most part, do not need to be captured. With some patience the dogs tend to get within 4 feet and finally will allow petting if they begin to trust you. Samoa, however, was a completely different experience. The dogs are free roaming, have formed packs and flee when approached directly. They are said to be aggressive by the local people and they tend to throw stones at the dogs to keep them away, which is probably why they seem aggressive! We held a feasibility study in January of 2009 and so we contacted Dr. Mark for some much needed help.
We needed a way to capture the stray (feral) dogs that was effective and humane. Our plan was to spay the females and use an injectable sterilant, Esterilsol, on the male dogs. The regular spay and neuter clinic would continue running for owned animals, while the capture team worked on the stray dogs.
I had solicited the 5 most skilled dog handlers in the Animal Balance team. They each have a calm disposition and a lifetime’s experience of handling dogs, they are our ‘dog whisperers’. However, they had never received formal training in capturing dogs. We organized conference calls with Dr. Mark and started to put the plan together. When we left for the islands they had received some excellent advice and had practiced the new techniques on their own dogs and rescue dogs that they were working with.
Dr. Mark advised us to buy Tru-Catch box traps to capture the dogs. We ordered 10 traps, however they did not arrive in Samoa in time for the campaign. We came up with another strategy very quickly, trying acepromazine in bait and monitored the dogs until they were sedate, then we captured them. This took far too much time and was very labor intensive. It was 100 degrees plus at mid-day and so the dogs moved their packs from shady area to shady area, perhaps stopping off at picnic tables for lunch scraps. We had to trail the dogs until we were able to capture them without causing stress, which did not always work.
We found that it was imperative that the dogs and the capture team remain calm at all times. The drugs would act poorly if the dogs were stressed. Another problem was when they reached the clinic they would be pre-medicated and their response to the drugs varied depending on stress level, heat and how much acepromazine they had ingested. This made safe pre-medication more difficult. It was also very difficult for the clinic team to assess the dog as they were already drowsy when entering the clinic so it was hard to tell if the dog was docile or sedated, or both.
All in all, orally drugging the dogs was inconsistent, often ineffective, and time-consuming and made caring for the dogs very difficult. We definitely need to use the box traps next time, to avoid these unknown factors and to ensure that everyone, humans and dogs, are safe.
After we released the dogs we visited them the following days to check on them. Upon our return, the dogs recognized our van and came to us, looking for a treat. We felt somewhat like the pied piper as we pulled away. This taught us that we needed to spend more time with the dog packs, feeding them, creating trust, prior to capturing them. Next time the capture team will fly to Samoa a week before the campaign to work with the stray dogs. They will capture at dusk and dawn when the temperature is cooler.
We came away with many questions regarding the packs. Should we capture the alpha, the pack leader first? Would the pack’s behavior change after sterilized? What if some were sterilized and some not? We hope to answer these questions as we move forward. As such we are re-designing our paperwork to answer these key areas.
Capturing dogs who live in a pack was a new experience for us. In the Galapagos and Dominican Republic we can touch the dogs, given time and patience. The communities have far more interaction with the dogs than on Samoa. Samoa was a challenge for us, however, we feel that we have learned a tremendous amount and know exactly how we should plan our captures next time we go, which we hope will be in summer of 2011.
I would advise anyone who is considering trapping stray/feral dogs to consult with Dr. Mark. His advice will ensure that you and the dogs are safe and that they are captured in the most humane manner possible. We hope that Dr. Mark will join Animal Balance next year so we can train the Department of Agriculture in safe and humane capturing techniques, ensuring that the program is sustainable.