Lending a Paw to Dogs on the Galapagos Islands

 |  Nov 23rd 2010  |   0 Contributions


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Giving a homeless dog a home is always a win-win proposition for the person and the pet involved, but sometimes it can have positive repercussions on a much bigger scale. Just ask New Yorker Tod Emko, who brought home an unusual souvenir from a trip to the Dominican Republic last year: a stray pup. That single act of kindness led to a global vision of animal welfare that's now improving the lives of dogs some 3,000 miles away.

In February of 2009, Tod traveled to a tiny village near Puerto Plata, to work on a volunteer spay-neuter campaign. Although a lifelong animal lover, he'd never had a dog of his own before, but a silky white-and-black Dominican pup, clearly part Border Collie, commanded his attention. The under-20-pound dog had been struck by a car; his left hindleg was shattered, and had to be partially amputated. The other strays were ganging up on the little guy because of his injury, so Tod arranged vet care and transport to New York City for Piggy, who earned his name because he'd inhale any and all food within reach.

Tod cheerfully rearranged his schedule to accommodate his new dog's love of running and playing in Central Park. The more Piggy ran, the stronger and taller he grew. When I first met this sweet dog, he was a shy, skinny, terrified runt cowering outside Petco, practically clinging to my Border Collie Sheba for protection, as if she were his long-lost mother. Today Piggy is 45 pounds of solid muscle, and practically towers over his old Mommy-mentor-friend. He's morphed into one of the most outgoing, charismatic dogs on the Central Park scene. Piggy learned how to be a dog, and Tod learned how to be a dog person. "Now, I can't imagine not having a dog!" he says.

But Tod couldn't stop thinking about the other dogs just like Piggy who had no medical care. On subsequent travels (he volunteers for Sea Shepherd Conservation Society), he encountered more and more dogs in need of medical treatment.

Meanwhile, back at home in New York, on every outing to the park with "The Pigster," Tod networked tirelessly, telling fellow dog lovers of his plans to open the first animal hospital on the Galapagos. Home to a vast number of species, from sea lions to blue-footed boobies, the protected islands are hugely popular with tourists - and anywhere tourism grows exponentially, the volume of trash also multiplies, which leads to a spike in the number of stray dogs and cats. Unvaccinated dogs carry the contagious diseases parvovirus and distemper, plus fleas, ticks, and other parasites, which threaten endemic species (sea lions are particularly susceptible to distemper). Yet there were no trained vets on the island to treat the growing pet population. Tod was determined to change that.

Today, eight months of hard work later, Tod's vision has become a reality. Named for the English scientist who put the Galapagos on the map, the non-profit Darwin Animal Doctors (DAD) has veterinarians working at three animal clinics on Charles Darwin's turf: on Santa Cruz Island, Isabela Island, and the capital, San Cristobal Island. The clinics on Isabela and Santa Cruz belong to the Office of Invasive Species Control (CIMEI), but until DAD arrived, they had no staff vets. So far, DAD has brought much-needed veterinary care to some 325 dogs - not including the numerous other species that have presented for treatment, from cats to donkeys and birds.

So, why should Dogsters care about pets on the faraway Galapagos? "Because," Emko explains, "its wildlife replenish the oceans, and if we don't work to protect all the islands' animals from disease, then the entire world will suffer, because there will be no wildlife left." If you're considering donating to a worthy animal charity this holiday season, Tod hopes you'll keep DAD top of mind.

"All of this is donation driven," he says. "None of this would be possible without generous companies like Merial and organizations like the Animal Medical Center giving us their short-dated medical supplies, plus the generosity of individuals who give us their old machinery. Likewise, our vets, whose salaries are also donation driven, do this out of love for the cause, even though we'd love to be able to pay them the salaries they deserve."

Full disclosure: I sit on the board of DAD. Do you have a "pet" charity you'd like to see spotlighted in this column? Please tell us about it in the comments!

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