Meet the street animals that stole scientists’ hearts
Animals : Free-roaming ‘street dogs’ number perhaps 300 million globally, says Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer at the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington DC. Studies of ‘street cat’ numbers are limited, but Rowan’s self-described “crude estimate” of the worldwide cat total is 700 million; this includes cats that live in a community setting and those claimed by humans.
Inevitably, some of these street animals are hurt or sick, prompting some scientists to intervene or even to adopt one. Yet helping a suffering creature while in the field is not always easy. Time is often limited, and a step that would be simple at home, such as taking an injured animal to a vet, can be daunting in a region where such services are scarce.
But social media — which provides easy access to information and resources — and a growing global network of voluntary groups have eased the path for scientists who are troubled by the plight of needy animals.
The lives of free-roaming animals — and local attitudes towards them — vary enormously. In parts of the Caribbean, street dogs are well nourished and treated affectionately, says ecologist Ryan Boyko, who heads the canine DNA-testing company Embark Veterinary in Austin, Texas, and has sampled DNA from street dogs in nearly 40 countries. But in other places, such as parts of Africa, street dogs are emaciated, riddled with open sores and covered with parasites.
The dog that ultimately found a home with Hitchcock was, by comparison, in good health. Although thin and tick-ridden, he was neither injured nor sick. His sudden appearance at the dig site, in a remote national park, led Hitchcock to suspect that someone had left him to fend for himself.
Whenever possible, scientists who want to help such animals should first try contacting local groups, says Meredith Ayan, executive director at the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International in New York City. Facebook is a good resource for finding local rescue groups. Community members are likely to know which animals that seem to be strays are actually associated with a household and don’t require feeding or care. Animal organizations with an international presence and vets might also be able to help.
Many animal-welfare groups advise caution for scientists in the field when it comes to feeding animals. Indiscriminate handouts, say group representatives, might create friction with local people and disrupt animals’ routines. “Once you leave, these animals don’t have food again,” says Joy Lee, who until the end of 2017 was based in Ahmedabad, India, where she worked for Humane Society International, an animal-protection organization that is active around the world.
That fate was exactly what Hitchcock feared for Fred and a second dog that appeared with him. “People were turning them into pets,” she says. “I thought, ‘In three weeks we’re going to leave and they’re just going to be discarded again.’ ” It seemed unlikely that Fred and his canine companion Fi belonged to the closest village, which was five to ten kilometres away.
Besides, Fred was timid, whereas the local sheepdogs were so aggressive that, for her own safety, Hitchcock feared to approach the shepherds to make enquiries. Worried about Fred and Fi’s future, she and others began working to find them homes.
An archaeologist friend helped Hitchcock to contact a local professor of veterinary medicine, who gave the dogs inoculations and tick medication. An Israeli scientist working at the site used the messaging app WhatsApp to find an adoptive family. But Fred’s family decided to give him up, and his only remaining option was a job as a prison guard dog. “That didn’t sound very good to me,” Hitchcock says. “I just had to rescue him.”
Researchers who, like Hitchcock, are troubled by the plight of such animals might want to support local vaccination drives. And many animal-welfare advocates recommend campaigns to sterilize free-roaming animals and return them to the community. But such trap-neuter-return, or TNR, programmes are controversial: modelling suggests that they can curtail populations in suitable areas, yet sustained success requires intense and long-lasting efforts, and few TNR programmes are rigorously monitored (P. S. Miller et al. PLoS ONE 9, e113553; 2014).
Meanwhile, the number of community organizations devoted to animal support is rising. In many parts of the world, the chance of finding a local partner is much higher than it was even five years ago, says conservation biologist John Boone at the Great Basin Bird Observatory in Reno, Nevada, who has studied the population dynamics of street cats.
And scientists who want to do more than donate money to support inoculation and other solutions can help in other ways. On two trips home to Toronto, Canada, from a field site in Greece, archaeologist Chelsea Gardner’s checked luggage included five large kennels, each holding a dog bound for an adoptive or foster family. Non-profit groups, such as Canada’s Paws Across the Water, arranged the placements, often through social media.