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When Pets Invade: Protecting Wildlife in the Galapagos

The Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic (LEX-NG) Fund aims to protect the last wild places in the ocean while facilitating conservation, research, education, and community development programs in the places we explore. This blog entry spotlights some of the exciting work our grantees are doing with support from the LEX-NG Fund.

Raise your hand if you’ve ever had a pet. Perhaps a scrappy little dog or a rambunctious cat?

Now raise your hand if you’ve ever worried about wild animals spreading diseases to your pet. From parasites to toxoplasmosis to rabies, most dog and cat owners in the U.S. are more concerned with what nasties their pets can pick up from wild animals than the other way around.  

But what happens when your pets are invasive?

I’m not talking about the times Ms. Frisky Whiskas stares at you in the shower or insists on rubbing against your legs while you’re on the toilet. I mean “invasive” in terms of “non-native”—species that only exist in a certain place because they were brought there by humans and, as a result, tend to wreak havoc on native wildlife.

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Cats are cute, but they can threaten native and endemic wildlife through predation, resource competition, and the spread of disease. Photo © Hang Yirui

The Galápagos Archipelago is home to some of the planet’s most unique creatures—animals you can’t find anywhere else on earth such as marine iguanas, Galápagos giant tortoises, flightless cormorants, Darwin finches, and Galápagos penguins. Here, cats and dogs are invasive species that were introduced only recently to the islands by its 30,000 residents.

The problem with dogs and cats living in the Galápagos is that native wildlife isn’t adapted to their presence. The Galápagos islands are particularly remote, which means that its animals evolved free from predators. That explains why its wildlife, famously, has no inherent fear of humans and will often show curiosity rather than alarm when approached; they don’t see us as predators. Unfortunately for them, they don’t see domestic animals as predators either, even when staring down the gaping maw of a cat or the flashing jaws of a dog.

Leashing dogs prevents them from harming native wildlife—either intentionally or accidentally. Photo courtesy of Darwin Animal Doctors

Another problem? Disease. Like English settlers arriving on the shores of America carrying smallpox, non-native animals multiply quickly and bring invasive diseases that can cause devastating harm to native populations.

Competition for resources is another issue. When Ms. Frisky Whiskas decides to get frisky, two months later she has a litter of kittens. Considering the fact that female cats can have kittens as young as four months old and that they go into heat every two to three weeks at certain times of the year, the unwanted cat population can explode quickly. Same goes for dogs. On islands with limited amounts of food resources, feral cats and dogs compete with native wildlife that’s never had to compete before.

Guess who wins the food battle? Native wildlife…or the booming population of invasive animals that have competed for limited resources for thousands of years, giving them an evolutionary advantage?

We all want to protect the precious native and endemic wildlife of the Galápagos, but residents also want to keep their beloved pets. So what’s to be done?

vet with dog
Darwin Animal Doctors, a full-service, nonprofit veterinary clinic, operates in the Galápagos with LEX-NG Fund support. Photo courtesy of Darwin Animal Doctors

Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD), with support from the Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Fund, is working toward a solution. DAD runs a full-service, nonprofit veterinary clinic on Santa Cruz Island in the Galápagos. One of the main services DAD provides is spaying and neutering pets—free of charge. Fewer cats and dogs means less competition with native wildlife for resources, fewer interactions between domestic and wild animals, and less opportunity to spread disease. By treating and sterilizing pets, DAD is actually protecting Galápagos’ native and endemic wildlife.

DAD also conducts outreach events on San Cristóbal and Floreana Islands where they offer free parasite treatments, biodegradable dog waste bags, and leashes in order to educate the public about responsible pet ownership. By keeping dogs on leashes and eliminating parasites, pet owners can reduce harmful interactions between domestic and wild animals, keeping everyone happy, safe, and healthy.

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Veterinarians, vet students, and technicians travel from all over the world to volunteer their time with DAD to help animals in the Galápagos—both wild and domestic. Photo courtesy of Darwin Animal Doctors

Domestic critters aren’t DAD’s only patients. Thanks to a historic agreement with the Galápagos National Park Directorate, DAD can provide emergency veterinary care at the Park’s request to wildlife that has been made sick or injured as a result of human interference. In an archipelago with dozens of threatened and endangered species, saving even one wild animal can make a difference to a population.

As if what they’re doing wasn’t already enough to cement their status as veterinary heroes, DAD staff has offered disaster relief for animal victims of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck the coast of Ecuador on April 16, 2016, killing over 600 people and injuring 2,700 more.

DAD veterinarian Dr. Maria Cristina Cely was onsite in Pedernales—a coastal town in mainland Ecuador decimated by the earthquake—within twenty-four hours. When K9 officers and firefighters dug through the rubble to find human victims, sometimes they came across injured animals, which Dr. Cely volunteered to treat. Now that rescue attempts have ceased, Dr. Cely and other volunteers have shifted their focus from handling emergencies to providing long-term care to the injured animals. “We are giving them food, medical aid, anything we can to help the displaced animal population of Pedernales,” says Dr. Cely.

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DAD veterinarian Dr. Maria Cristina Cely provides relief to the animal victims of the 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck Ecuador on April 16, 2016. Photo © Acción Animal Ecuador

One thing’s for sure—Darwin Animal Doctors care deeply about both wild and domestic animals, and are committed to doing their best to provide crucial veterinary care. “Protecting the animals of the extraordinary Galápagos Islands is our line in the sand,” says DAD Board Member and Operations Director Jochem Lastdrager. “If we can’t save the animals of the Galápagos, what animals can we save?”

Thanks to DAD veterinarians, vet students, and technicians who travel from all over the world to volunteer their time and services, Ms. Frisky Whiskas and all her pet pals can receive the care they need to live happy, healthy lives separate from Galápagos’ native and endemic species.

And the wildlife? They have a champion.

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If you would like to learn more about wildlife conservation in the Galápagos, or other projects supported by the LEX-NG Fund worldwide, please contact the Fund by email. To contribute to the LEX-NG Fund, click here.