Jan 14, 2005 – Visiting the animal shelter on St. Croix or St. Thomas can be a heart-rending experience. So many cute puppies looking at you with their sad eyes. You want to pet them, take them home, let them run free and be happy.
But little puppies grow into big dogs, and big dogs can cause problems.
The Virgin Islands have dogs attacking people – 128 dog bites were reported last year – and a lot of stray dogs – about 3,000 picked up on St. Croix alone in 2004.
Joe Elmore, Humane Society of St. Thomas executive director, warns about tying the two problems together. He says, "Most times when a dog bites a person, that dog is owned by someone."
The stray dogs still are a problem. Just the amount of them can keep pet owners from walking their pets for fear of encounters with them. They also can take a toll on birds (See "Nature Reserve Battling Stray Dog Problem ") and turtles. (See "Dogs Blamed for Attacks on Turtles").
Laura Ballard, interim director at the St. Croix Animal Shelter calls stray dogs "a huge problem." She said recently the problem stems from residents having a misconception about what spaying and neutering animals means to the animal. However, she added that stray dogs are generally fearful of humans and will not attack unless cornered.
The 3,000 dogs picked up last year is just the symptom of the problem. The animal shelter does not go out and collect strays. It only picks up dogs that have become a nuisance and about which residents have complained.
Statistics on what dogs are attacking people are not available. However, reports from Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital and Roy Lester Schneider Hospital indicated that, on average, someone had to be treated every third day last year at a V.I. hospital for a dog bite. At Juan F Luis Hospital 57 people required treatment at the emergency room for bites; the Roy Lester Schneider hospital reported treating 71.
The reports did not specify whether the bites were from strays or pets, but anecdotal evidence indicates Elmore is right, that many of the incidents result because people can't control their dogs.
Two attacks, receiving considerable publicity earlier this year, support the premise.
A vicious dog in mid January attacked and bit a three-year-old boy in the Frederiksted area.
According to Sgt. Thomas Hannah, police spokesman, if a police officer had not arrived and fought the dog off the child, the child could have been killed.
Hannah said that the child's mother and his older brother had been unsuccessful in getting the attacking rottweiler to stop. After the officer got the dog off the child, the dog attacked the officer and the officer had to shoot it.
Original reports indicated the animal died, but it was back at its owner's house three weeks later. The dog warden went and picked the dog up.
Ballard said she wants to put the dog, called Kennia by the shelter staff, asleep because it is a danger to people working at the shelter. However, she cannot get police permission to do that because of what is being referred to as a "court case."
Hannah said, "We have had complaints about this dog before. The dog kept an elderly woman in the neighborhood trapped on her porch." He added he thought the problem was the dog owner bought the dog and did not train it.
Just the week before that incident, a tourist on Hibiscus Beach reported being attacked by a vicious dog and being only able to escape by going into the ocean. The tourist, Stuart Atfest, received minor injuries. Again, reports were that the dog was owned by someone living in the neighborhood.
And those are just the reports that made the news, one resident told the Source about their cat being killed by vicious dogs owned by a neighbor, but added they did not bother to report it.
Hannah said, "Basically, we have a problem of people not taking care of their pets."
He said the department does not receive many calls about people being attacked by dogs. And residents often don't report attacks of animals by other animals to avoid starting a neighborhood feud.
V.I. Code holds dog owners responsible for any damages caused by their dogs.
Ballard urges people who are attacked, or if their animal is attacked, to report the incident. "If that incident is not reported. It could be something worse the next time – a young child."
The V.I. code also calls for guard dogs to be confined. This might contribute to some of the problems on the Virgin Islands. Elmore said a dog tied up "doesn't acquire normal social skills." He said such an animal, when it suddenly finds itself loose, might act aggressively. He added it wasn't necessarily inhumane to keep a dog tied up, but when a dog is tied up it needs a lot of attention. It is also his opinion that more dogs are tied up on St. Thomas because the hilly terrain of the island makes fences too expensive.
At the time of the January incidents, a newspaper article said three reports had to be made about a dog before an investigation would be launched. Hannah said that was wrong. He said officers receiving any report about a vicious dog attack will investigate it.
The confusion could have resulted from the procedure that is often taken after a complaint. Usually an owner is given a warning the first time. The second time the owner's dog will be classified as a dangerous animal and insurance will have to be obtained by the owner for the dog and other restraint applications will apply. It might not be until the third complaint that the owner generally faces criminal proceedings.
Elmore said the shelter received one or two calls a week concerning aggressive stray dogs. However, he believes the problem may be getting smaller because of a spay-neutering program administered by the shelter. Neutering a dog could cost up to $200. The shelter will pay part of those costs. The amount paid by the owner is determined by the owner's income.
St. Croix also has a program, and Ballard says it is alleviating the problem there too. Still, she says the stray population on St. Croix is five times the average of an area with a comparable human population.
Ballard lamented there was not a more efficient way to keep track of aggressive dogs.
She said she would like the hospital to contact the shelter every time a person was treated for a dog bite.
She said basically a dog bites out of fear or because it was trained to be aggressive. She said stray dogs generally don't know what the "human touch"is like, so they fear humans. The aggressive dogs have been trained to protect property or to fight. Dog fighting is illegal. No busts of dog-fighting pits have been made in recent years. However, she said last week members of the St. Croix Animal Shelter and the warden were investigating a report of dogs being raised to fight.
Kennia, the dog in the Frederiksted attack, exhibited a mixture of fear and aggression, mostly fear, when his photograph was being taken last week.
Ballard said, "Mostly he is no problem, but looking at him, you wonder when that will change."
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