Spay Neuter Project in Samoa

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,  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.

Animal Balance Team in Samoa

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.

Surgery on a Porch

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.

Capturing Dogs

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.

Dog in the Mangroves

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.

Dogs in Recovery

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.

Samoan boy with puppy

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.

5 Responses

  1. Dear Dr. Mark: I have lots of questions on catching, one of which is that when our team goes out for dog catching, dogs pick up their scent ever so quickly and before they are there, there is a spate of barking and it becomes difficult to make a good catch. I do understand that we need to comb a large area before capturing a good number but the problem of the animals becoming aware so soon is a problem. In fact the staff at one of our centers used to tell me that even when we are out in the markets in the evening, wearing our normal clothes, dogs begin to bark at us. At one time they actually surrounded them and they had to give them a bit of a shoo before moving on. Maybe a big exaggerated but there it is!!! Please put together an answer for this problem. thanks. Sujatha

  2. We are in the process of organizing a spay and neuter campaign in a trailer park on an Indian Reservation. I have 2 questions for you:

    Did you elease the dogs the same day after surgery or kept them over night?

    What did you do to identify them as an altered dog. Can you clip the tips of their ears as with feral cats?

    • Michelle,
      Thank you for your questions.
      The amount of time that dogs are held varies with each program. In Ladakh, India they held dogs for three days. In Samoa, and many other programs, they release the dogs the same day or overnight.

      Dogs sterilized and released for TNR programs are marked either by the ear-tip method that you mentioned or by notching the lower edge of the ear which is always done on either the right or left side. For some reason, most programs I have visited choose the right side. In my opinion, the ear notch is more visible than the ear tipping. Emma Clifford of Animal Balance is conducting a spay/neuter clinic in the Galapagos, but I will forward your question to another member of the team. I also invite readers of this blog to submit replies to these questions.
      Good luck. Dr. Mark.

  3. Dear Dr Mark,

    I am a stray feeder of a pack (in a construction site with huge running space & lots of bushes to hide) and have been trying to get this smart female pup (around 8months) for sterilisation and release. She is trap-resistant, as would rather starve and would instead ran off to another place looking for food. I have been feeding them for several months and she is still keeping a very long distance from me. The moment I take a step forward, she will retreat several steps……and thus cannot use the leash, poles on her. Here in our country, blowpipe & shooting are prohibited. I thought of oral sedation but was told that the risk of the dog dying is very high. Am running out of time and running out of ideas….please advice.

    I am particularly concern about this female pup as she was trapped before and was adopted to a family which then claimed that they “lost” the dog. She was found after a month of searching and is now very smart and fearful of human beings. I suspect that the family didn’t treat her well.

    Thank you so much!

    • Eva,
      Your persistent and dedication is excellent. Sometimes there are no easy solutions.

      I have never had success with oral sedation, though some people have. It is definitely inconsistent and unreliable. At times the effects of the drug may be harmful, but that is not usually the greatest risk. As the dog becomes heavily sedate,they try to move to areas where they feel more secure and may cross roads, or fall into water or holes, or fall onto sharp objects as they stumble. Also it is very difficult to give the right dose. We never know what the best “actual” dose to give and we do not know how much food is already in their stomach or how much of the drug they will eat. I wrote a post about Fatal Plus, but I am not comfortable endorsing it. It is a euthanasia drug and the name alone makes me uncomfortable to use it for oral sedation.

      The only solution, which I have seen work again and again is to use the boxtrap, but ATTEND TO THE DETAILS and be persistent. It is true that some dogs will never be caught by a boxtrap, but most dogs will be caught if it is done properly. I have the basic details on box trapping dogs on other posts in this blog and on my website Training Library, but to REALLY know the details, I encourage you to purchase our boxtrapping video which provides all of the details for the most difficult dogs. First of all, wire the trap open (but make sure you check the trap every day in case the door accidentally closes with an animal). And have a strategy about the way you feed. NEVER move toward the aniaml – as you say it scares them. Never show them any energy or intention that you wish to catch them. Cover the trap properly (see video) and move the food station closer too the trap while having the greatest smelly food in the trap at just the right places in the trap. If she has pups you can catch some pups with way and then have them in a closed trap in the shade (and you nearby with binoculars) and put another trap next to the trap with the pups. – Set the trap the right way which again is all in the video. Change baits each week. Overtime it might be your only option.
      Keep trying. Respectfully, Dr.Mark

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