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Blog of a Vegan Pirate in Galapagos, Post 2: Campaign Start

A husky, a new breed on Galapagos, one that suffers particularly badly from the equatorial heat

A husky, a new breed on Galapagos, one that suffers particularly badly from the equatorial heat

From September to December 2008, the vegan conservation group Sea Shepherd waged a fight to protect the ecosystem and all the animals of the Galapagos Islands in Ecuador. This blog recounts what happened in that time, serving for the group.

The post below describes what the start of the campaign was like.

Because of the state of affairs that the office was going through, there was no project waiting for me to tackle when I got here. At first, all I did was rebuild the office IT and data infrastructure, and secure sensitive digital data. But I had no idea how I would spend the rest of my time in the Galapagos, or in fact make any sort of dent in the myriad of conservation problems here. That is, until Animal Balance came to town.

Volunteers of Animal Balance giving vet care to Galapagos dogs.

Animal Balance is a conservation group that goes to exotic ecosystems, and humanely reduces the number of invasive cats and dogs by spaying and neutering them. Alex assigned me to work on the Animal Balance campaign for two reasons. The first reason was that it was a great cause. We went from island to island in the Galapagos, and the campaign ended up spaying and neutering 308 animals, greatly relieving the pressure of invasive animals on the ecosystem. I adopted the cat Nikki Wolf during this campaign, and he actually helped socialize other feral animals who were captured, making them suitable for adoption.

The second, secret reason I was assigned to the Animal Balance campaign, unbeknown to even the staff of Animal Balance, was to use the opportunity to investigate the source of illegally smuggled animals and put a stop to it.

Animal Smuggling

At this moment, one of the leading causes of ecosystem and animal suffering in the Galapagos is the illegal live animal trade. The law of the Galapagos says that it is illegal for anyone to bring any cats or dogs to the islands, or to commercially breed them in the Galapagos. However, despite that law or the efforts of Animal Balance, we discovered that the number of cats and dogs and the variety of pet breeds in the Galapagos has been skyrocketing the past year.

The Galapagos is a World Heritage Site that Ecuador and the UN have decided should be kept as an ecosystem and wildlife preserve. As such, it is illegal to bring in any cats or dogs to this sanctuary for exotic birds and iguanas and other rare life. However, many of the people who live here can’t understand why they are not allowed to have the same things that everyone else in the world is allowed to have: purebred dogs, purebred cats, everything that makes a happy family, just like everyone in first world countries have. So even though it’s illegal, many Galapaganeans decide to illegally buy things that seems harmless: puppies and kittens.

People all over the Galapagos acquire new purebred puppies and kittens despite the law.

As harmless as it seems, this has an immense impact on everything in the Galapagos. Animal smuggling is a huge and organized criminal business, the animals themselves suffer to a nearly incomprehensible degree, and the ecosystem of the Galapagos is the ultimate victim of it all.

The initial investigation yielded the following findings:

Purebred cats and dogs are smuggled to the islands by boat, sedated to be kept quiet and put into tiny containers when they’re taken ashore. It costs $200 to bring each puppy/kitten by ship to land, and another $100+ to deliver them to customers once on shore. Depending on the breed, they can cost wealthy breeder customers on the islands up to $1000 each. I got leads on when to catch certain ships bringing contraband to the islands, and I sneaked onto secluded docks at night to photograph these activities. Unfortunately, all that proved was that people were unloading unmarked cargo after hours illegally. It wasn’t enough evidence by any means to get law enforcement interested. I had to dig deeper.

Isabela Island. It’s illegal to unload cargo at night in the Galapagos, after customs and immigration closes.

Without anyone to examine the contents of each crate that’s unloaded after hours, anything could be shipped to shore in giant crates.

Investigating further revealed that breeder puppies are kept in wretched conditions, made into puppy factories usually without food or water most of the time, and without any space to walk; many go insane from their awful conditions. Sometimes they’re penned up and made to breed with their siblings. I eventually obtained undercover footage of some of these dogs’ situations (confidential footage which I can’t yet share with non-law enforcement groups, to protect the identities of those who helped me obtain this footage), and some of the dogs had obvious debilitating and sometimes life-threatening health problems.

Even rare, highly sought-after breeds are used (in usually deplorable conditions without food or water or the removal of their feces) and discarded, bound to be put down after they serve their business purpose. While they are in service, you can hear them whine constantly out of despair, if they’re not shell shocked to silence.

The people in charge of the illegal commercial breeding business are affluent, with clout, who know how to exploit the impoverished. These wealthy business people or ship smugglers often use poor middlemen to make the sales for them. One of the ways we know that the business is a unified organization is because the breeders/smugglers then train each new puppy owner on what to say; the cover stories are the same for each purebred animal owner, regardless which island they’re on. For instance, a very common cover story is that the purebred pet was obtained as a rescue case from an arrested illegal breeder from a year ago. Of course, since 90% of the breeds on the islands have only appeared in the last year, these stories are false. There is a new breed of dog arriving (most recently pugs, welsh corgis, and dachshunds), never before seen on the islands, about every two weeks. The wealthiest breeders also export purebreds from one island to others. Many purebred animals are discarded and left on the streets after they grow larger, so the owners can get more small and cute puppies.

Exotic breeds like cocker spaniels were not seen in the Galapagos a year ago. Now they’re commonplace.

The result of this is a ridiculously increased rate of ecological destruction and animal suffering. Sea lions, island birds with no natural predators, marine iguanas, and nesting sea turtles have no chance against predatory cats and dogs that are now all over the beaches. It is currently the middle of hatching season for green sea turtles in the Galapagos, and the dwindling number of turtle hatchlings can be seen torn to pieces by purebred cats as the turtles hatch, the half-eaten carcasses of baby turtles littering the beaches during this feast. Dogs eat slow-moving marine iguanas who have no defense against the dogs. Dogs also attack sea lions who are no match for the typical purebreds on the islands. One of the biggest problems is the diseases like Parvo and Distemper that come with new dogs, that people are afraid of since the islands are not prepared for such diseases. Last year, over 20 dogs died of Parvo on the islands.

Many problems stem from new stray cats and other invasive species mingling with the native animals.

It wasn’t easy acquiring a lot of this information. As a gringo, I wasn’t trusted by many islanders in the business. I met a lot of people who turned out to aiding this organized crime, and I had to claw my way day after day in order to get any modicum of reliable information. I also combed through every government office until I found some willing to slip me information under the table.

During this time, I also met someone who became a mentor, someone who used to be one of the top government officials in Ecuador before quitting in the face of all the government corruption. This mentor warned me of the futility of trying to get the government to help solve this ecological problem, but at first I didn’t listen.

Next Monday’s blog post will cover the government reaction and resulting fallout from the investigation up to this point.


  1. Comment by


    on #

    Thanks for posting this! I never even knew that dogs and cats were such a big problem out there. Really eye-opening…

  2. Comment by

    kathryn sandoval

    on #

    I just came across this after looking into Animal Balance’s website, and ACC&D’s next conference. I was in Galapagos in 09,spent a year and a half in Ecuador, and plan to go back. I am an animal advocate, and worked with the local population on spay and neuter campaigns. I will continue this when I return. Very interesting Todd.It’s a very tough issue.