Tod gives Roxy a squeeze, Simon looks to the sky, and Ben sits handsomely in the foreground. Photo by Liz Sullivan for The New York Post.
In a series for this very blog, SuperVegan’s Tod Emko turned upside-down my ingenuous perception of the Galapagos Islands. What I imagined to be, and what once was, an unscathed paradise for albatross, tortoises, finches, sea lions, and hundreds of other tropical-weather-loving species has become something of a perverted hell for human-introduced domesticated animals and the native species on which they prey. Disease-carrying feral pups and cats on Galapagos are decimating native species, and with no natural predators, the dog and cat populations are soaring. Hundreds of sick, injured, and abused feral mutts found their way to Tod while he was in the Galapagos this spring, and several even followed him home. Struggling to manage the overwhelming need for medical care and humane population control for these disregarded creatures, Tod enlisted the help of a veterinarian and the guidance and partnership of nonprofit Amigo Fiel to plan the Galapagos’s first animal hospital and shelter.
Tod spared several hours last week from the two jobs that fund his apartment-menagerie to describe the cause and plans for this ambitious project.
Samantha Cohen: Your blog series, Blog of a Vegan Pirate in Galapagos, details your travails in the area this spring, including your experience with the exploded dog and cat populations there. For those who haven’t had a chance to read your vibrant posts, could you explain the need for a Galapagos animal hospital?
Tod Emko: It may surprise a lot of people who haven’t been there recently, but the Galapagos islands are under a lot more unnatural pressure than they can handle. The animals of Galapagos are suffering from too much human interference and development, and there is almost nothing restoring balance to give the animals a chance at having a future there.
Since the islands are a cash cow for tourism, they’ve become the new land of opportunity. So in recent years, the number of SUVs, roads, towns, speedboats, fuel-spilling ships, cargo shipments, construction work, and bulldozing to clearcut Galapagos land have skyrocketed there, killing countless native animals and causing a huge influx of domestic animals, farm animals, parasites, and foreign diseases. The federal government currently outlaws all of the vaccines for those invasive animal diseases on Galapagos, so sicknesses like parvo and distemper are spreading through the islands like wildfire. This is especially concerning since endemic animals like sea lions have been proven to be able to catch distemper. Our project vet, Dr. Marilyn Cruz, who runs her tiny clinic out of the back of her home in Galapagos, is buried in a mountain of patient animals who are brought to her with parvo and distemper.
And the numbers are going to get much worse. Around 30,000 permanent residents live in Galapagos now, to support a tourism industry that brings 160,000 tourists to the tiny islands per year. Absolutely none of those hundreds of thousands of people on the Galapagos have any sewage treatment, and almost all the garbage they produce burns next to the Galapagos finch habitats or is dumped into the Galapagos forests. This amount of pollution has been contributing to a growing feral dog and cat population and spreading tons of parasites and disease. The small archipelago can’t handle that much destruction. The most heavily populated island of the Galapagos, with about 20,000 people on it, is only around 30 miles long, yet a desire to bring even more people has lead to the construction of two airports on Galapagos, with a third one in the works now.
SC: Why aren’t the parvo and distemper vaccines legal?
TE: The government does not acknowledge that these diseases exist on Galapagos, despite the constant and increasing flood of positive blood tests that show animals dying of these diseases all over the Galapagos. So they outlaw the vaccines, stating that if they import these vaccines to the islands, they will be introducing these diseases (albeit in vaccine form) to a pristine environment which has never had such germs.
SC: Are there any activists or activist groups on the island to counter the government’s claims?
TE: Yes, us. Dr. Cruz has been collecting positive blood tests and other research and continually appealing to the government to allow the vaccines to finally be legalized. They refuse to budge, however. And unfortunately, the outlawing of these vaccines is compounding the problem for another reason; pet owners and smugglers who illegally import new purebred dogs and cats for sale on Galapagos are now also smuggling in the vaccines themselves. Vaccines require special trained care and maintenance, or else they may become active, turning a parvo vaccine into a vial full of the deadly active parvo virus. The smugglers end up inadvertently injecting healthy animals with active parvo and distemper viruses, thus spreading the diseases further.
Also, I can’t say whether or not this has bearing on their decision, but the Galapagos is on the UN World Heritage Site in Danger list, a list the government has been trying very hard to get off because they don’t want the international scrutiny or bad press. Thus, they have been making a huge effort to tell everyone that nothing is wrong with the Galapagos, it’s still a pristine environment untouched by man, that it’s fully protected, and no one should be concerned. I don’t know if this played into their decision about the vaccines, but if they started acknowledging that these serious diseases are now all over the Galapagos, it would hurt their chances of getting off the Site in Danger list.
SC: How is your group approaching the government?
TE: We are trying to proliferate the data and studies to show concerned parties that the problem exists, regardless of what the federal policy says. The main industry on the Galapagos is the tourist trade, and the tourism machine won’t benefit at all if the island is decimated by invasive diseases that could have been stopped.
SC: So how do you get people’s attention? Leafletting? Protesting?
TE: To start the dialogue with the populace, we came up with surveys and passed them out to everyone—office workers, shopkeepers, policemen—hundreds of people. The surveys asked for people’s opinions on some simple animal matters, like, “Are animals important to you?” Some people responded that they loved animals, and others said they didn’t care for animals at all. The last question on the survey asked, “Do you think there should be an animal hospital on Galapagos?” If even a small but relevant minority percentage of people said yes, then I would’ve still tried to build this thing. But we were shocked. It was completely unanimous; every single person who took the survey said they believed there should be an animal hospital on Galapagos.
Another way we’re trying to get a relevant amount of attention down there is by going through the schools. We talked to teachers, who wanted to know about the animal welfare issues but simply did not have any school programs or material that explained the problems of Galapagos. Some groups there, like Ambiente Independiente, are waging campaigns, like anti-plastics education, to give the kids growing up there a good sense of how to protect their island’s future, but there are so many specific ecological concerns to address there that we all have to chime in. We’re trying to create a conservation education package that we can help teachers proliferate in schools.
SC: You brought back with you a couple of pups and a kitten. How’d you choose them out of the hundreds of feral dogs and cats on the island?
TE: I didn’t; they chose me. People around the island just started realizing that this guy, for some reason, will help animals you find, so I started getting calls from people who’d find this or that animal that needed help. Foxy came first. A friend found her and called me, and when I got there, Foxy was hanging out in typical style, sitting with humans she just met. All it took to adopt her was to say, “Wanna come home with me?” and she followed us maybe a half mile through town to my apartment. I sat on the ground to examine her and she just plopped into my lap like a monkey.
SC: There must have been many more than the three pictured here, though, right?
TE: Yeah, some animals got adopted there, some died (one gorgeous little loving dog died of distemper), and sometimes we just couldn’t find the animals that people called us to find. Injured animals will run and hide.
SC: What are the next steps to take to get the animal hospital in place?
TE: Right now, our project vet, Dr. Cruz, runs a small clinic out of her own home. She does as much as her expertise will allow, but we need to expand her clinic badly with more infrastructure and medicine. She doesn’t even charge clients who can’t afford healthcare for their animals, so the money for medicine has to come from somewhere. Also, a big problem is that she cannot board animals at her house clinic, so we intend to purchase land that we can fence to act as the animal sanctuary and boarding facility for any animals needing surgery or to be monitored after surgery, etc.
SC: Besides PayPal, how are you seeking funding?
TE: A good friend, a lawyer and conservationist who’s also a new board member of Amigo Fiel, is starting to explore the appropriate grant writing. However, right now, my main plan is to get a clue. Conservationist friends and even just people who hear about the project are being fantastic about offering their experiences and insights on how they created nonprofits, animal shelters, international conservation groups, etc. They don’t ask for me to do anything in return except to do a good job.
SC: What’s your fundraising goal?
TE: We’re still in the preliminary land-hunting and price-negotiating phase for the animal sanctuary and boarding facility, although we have found one possible plot of land in a practical location (practical meaning it is connected to the running water system and electricity). Even better, the seller is willing to give us a huge discount on his asking price because he takes in tons of stray animals and simply wants to see this animal hospital project happen. So, we cannot be specific, but if you want a ballpark figure, it would probably cost somewhere around $20,000 to purchase enough land to have an effective sanctuary and boarding facility. As for the expansion of the clinic, our project vet, who knows a lot more about the necessary equipment and supplies needed every month than I do, says that $30,000 will allow the clinic to handle everything that an island clinic in that circumstance needs to handle. Of course, any increase in funding will enlarge the number of animals we can keep alive per month. Now that I’m back in New York, it’s so strange to think that $50,000 can purchase, build, and run an entire hospital, boarding facility, and animal sanctuary.
SC: I imagine there are far more stray and feral cats and dogs in the Galapagos than there are here. How do they manage to survive in the wild? You said they feed on garbage, but what about shelter and predators (including humans)?
TE: There are no predators on Galapagos that hunt cats and dogs. Feral cats and dogs are the top predators of Galapagos, decimating the lizard, iguana, birds, etc that are their food supply in the wild. Everywhere you go on Galapagos, from the deserts to the beaches to the forests, there are now feral cats and dogs feeding on the unique Galapagos animals most people have learned to identify the islands with.
That brings us to the humans. Unfortunately, it is most people’s immediate reaction to say, “Something must be done about these invasive cats and dogs! They’re the problem!” This is a very popular, and impractical, conservation attitude. While it’s easy to demonize the cats and dogs who are simply trying to survive, they are not the ones voluntarily sneaking onto ships and planes to get to Galapagos to create a highly profitable illegal purebred animal smuggling ring. They are not the ones chaining themselves into tiny spaces creating nightmarish and illegal purebred commercial breeding programs on the islands. They are not the ones profiting from breaking the law, proliferating these animals to every island of the Galapagos to satisfy paying customers who will dish out up to $1,000 for a new purebred dog never before seen on their island (status symbol). They’re not the ones paying up to $400 for each purebred puppy illegally commercially bred from each of those smuggled animals.
SC: What is it they think should be done?
TE: For every extermination program held on Galapagos for conservation purposes, decimating newborn kittens, there are plenty of humans working to replenish the supply. It is impractical to blame cats and dogs for their own presence on Galapagos, because punishing/exterminating them will not affect the problem. It is humans who immediately replace any exterminated cats or dogs, with new illegally imported and commercially bred ones, ones that will not be neutered or spayed.
SC: In your opinion, then, what is the solution to an unsustainable cat and dog population?
TE: The answer is to start holding people accountable, to start actually enforcing the laws put in place to stop the widespread proliferation of cats and dogs. To start increasing the costs of not spaying or neutering your pet in a UN World Heritage Site in Danger. To convince people that it’s more important long-term to protect the ecosystem. I approached the municipalities of the Galapagos, pointing out that the penalties are ridiculously low for breaking conservation law IN THE GALAPAGOS. I asked, “Why can’t we increase the penalties so that people will stop illegally destroying the ecosystem? Increase the penalty so it won’t be worth their while to break conservation laws?” They looked at me incredulously and said, “Well if we increase the fines for breaking conservation laws, people won’t want to pay them.” They could not believe that I could not understand such a simple concept as that.