YouthWrites – Letter from Tahiti: An uphill struggle for dealing humanely with stray dogs

A recent graduate in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Bern in Switzerland and one of Global Insights first YouthWrites contributors, French-Swiss national Charlene Thiry travelled last July 2023 to the other side of the world to discover the Pacific tropical island of Tahiti and to work there as a newly appointed vet. Charlene first wrote for us as a 17-year-old high school student from Ruaha National Park in southern Tanzania where she undertook a six-week volunteer stint working with wildlife returning several years later as a veterinary support student. Today, together with another veterinarian and two assistants, 27-year-old Charlayne is practising in a local clinic where she has also been trying to deal with the sensitive issue of stray dogs.

Veterinarian Charlayne Thiry at the operating table. (Photo: Charlayne Thiry)

This is part of Global Geneva Group’s Youth Writes educational initiative helping young people to write about their volunteer and other on-the-ground experiences as inspiration for others. This is now being developed as part of our three-year multi-media Wiki Centennial Project on the Mediterranean.

Despite being located so far away on these French Polynesian islands in the Pacific Ocean, my veterinary clinic represents the height of luxury. It is equipped with a top-of-the-line surgery room with x-ray and ultrasound machines. I almost felt that I was back in Europe. And yet, as soon as I arrived, I found myself dealing with one of Tahiti’s main problems: dealing with stray street dogs. These range from several day-old puppies to much older dogs, and represent a problem throughout the islands. (See Charlayne’s article on her experience as a student vet supporting local communities in Tanzanzia)

Many of these animals have mange, a form of canine scabies, or suffer from broken limbs; some survive on their own or in packs. Some are sociable, others extremely fearful or aggressive. Many are not even ‘strays’ but are fostered by Tahitian families. As a result, it is often often difficult to know if they are being cared for, or have an owner.

Most of these dogs are never monitored by a veterinarian. They have no identity tags or microchips. Nor are they sterilized. Technically, all dogs and cats in France – of which Tahiti is part of as a French Overseas Territory – are meant to be identified. Unfortunately, local animals are often only processed, or given rabies vaccines, when returning to the ‘metropole’ or other parts of the European Union with their owners.

The issue of stray animals is not new to Polynesia. It has existed for decades, but has never really prompted any action by the Polynesian government or the French state. Nothing has been done to limit the proliferation of errant street animals.

Stray puppy in Tahiti at clinic. (Photo: Charlayne Thiry)

All this poses a significant challenge for French Polynesia, which is bearing the brunt of a large-scale spread of canines on many of its 118 islands and islands. A similar problem exists amongst its cats, which are perceived more as a nuisance. Dogs, on the other hand, are regarded as a security issue.

As I have always been concerned about the plight of animals ever since childhood, one of my first personal challenges on arrival was to find out more about the issue by contacting  different animal protection associations to explore what could be done, if anything. As with many deeply concerned by the stray dogs’ issue, it was clearly apparent that what is needed is the implementation of an organized sterilization campaign. Previous veterinarians have sought to implement such a programme, but to little or no avail.

As an outsider, such previous thwarted experiences immediately made me aware of the many challenges at hand. One clear issue is the lack of motivation amongst so many animal owners throughout Polynesia. The sterilization of animals is simply not part of their culture. Many, too, consider such precautions as un-natural. Another problem is the lack of public awareness severely hampering any efforts to implement such a campaign. So even if some veterinarians are fully prepared to adapt their prices in line with the actions of local animal associations, it is not that easy.

Another barrier is purely legal. Even given the obvious presence of stray animals, local associations or members of the public do not have the right to simply remove them from the street as part of such a campaign. The mere fact that treated animals would be released back into ‘nature’ would be considered a legal offense of abandonment. So even with the best of intentions, there are barriers.

View across Tahiti in French Polynesia. (Photo: Charlayne Thiry)

As a result, one key local organization, ARPAP (Alliance for the Respect and Protection of Animals in French Polynesia) is seeking to find cohesive solutions by linking associations and the islands with the state and justice itself. The creation of a large associative shelter is now planned for the main island of Tahiti in order to accommodate animals which are victims of abuse or abandonment, while waiting to find a new family. Currently, only two animal pounds exist throughout Tahiti, but both have limited capacity and are not responsible for keeping animals until they are adopted.

Frustrating though it is, it is essential that the issue of more evolved approaches are crucial. Apart from animal welfare reasons, stray animals have become a public safety issue. Recently, stray dogs attacked a person on one of the islands, resulting in his death. In another incident, a personal acquaintance lost one of her two dogs following a fatal attack by a pack of strays shortly her arrival on the islands from mainland France. Such stories regularly remind one of the problems that we face, and the real dangers that exist if the problem of stray dogs is not properly – and humanely – tackled.

Being only a recently qualified veterinarian and new to the island, I admit to feeling utterly helpless. My somewhat naively previously imagined sprint to resolving such problems with a few sterilization campaigns was not going to happen. However, one can begin having an impact by implementing a local educational and information process that might prompt the government act. One partial solution would be to revise current laws on animal ownership. Each owner should place an electronic chip on their animal  in order to be able to identify it and distinguish it from stray animals.

The next step would be to oblige owners to sterilize their animals, if they are unable to prove the ability to take care of any future puppies. Of course, enforcing the letter of the law may prove difficult, but at least it would be a start. Implementing such a legal approach would enable local associations to be better distinguish strays from those of errant dogs, which have simply wandered off, a problem which occurs even back in my home village in France.

Friend with stray puppies. (Photo: Charlayne Thiry)

I am fully aware that I am little more than a “Poppa” as Tahitians refer to white foreigners, even those who are French. Clearly, too, it is difficult to put yourself in the shoes of the islands’ inhabitants given cultural differences. Our concerns should not be based on expatriate arrogance but rather genuine concern for both people and animals. This should not be an excuse to accept the suffering of thousands of animals from injuries and hunger in the streets. And even less, to accept that such animals continue to give birth to puppies which will only suffer the same fate.

Freshly graduated from a high school in France, Charlène Thiry wrote for Global Insights about her Tanzanian volunteer experience in 2017. Having recently graduated as a fully-fledged veterinarian, she is now doing a six-month stint in Tahiti. She now lives in Switzerland as a fifth year veterinary student at the University of Bern. While at university, Charlayne helped found VetHopes, a charity initiative which won a Jane Goodall Challenge award, offering free treatment of pets owned by homeless people. She wrote this article for Global Geneva Group’s Youth Writes initiative helping young people to improve their writing skills through personal stories, but also to become more aware of planetary concerns.

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