Editorial – On litter, and litters: Our problems with garbage and dogs

Grand Cayman’s most obnoxious problems — our out-of-control garbage situation and runaway feral dog population — may actually be one and the same.

That’s according to a pair of prominent canine scientists featured recently in The New York Times.

The association rings true to us. Generally speaking, an animal population requires a couple of things for survival: habitat and food.

With wide expanses of bush and unprotected rubbish bins on every corner — not to mention litter strewn on the roadside, residences that welcome in “part-time pets” at night, and the mountain of solid waste at the George Town Landfill — Grand Cayman is a practical paradise for “village dogs,” or what scientists Raymond and Lorna Coppinger describe as “superbly adapted scavengers.”

The Coppingers have spent decades studying these waste-dependent creatures, to the point of arriving at mathematical certainties. “The number of dogs that can survive in a city or a neighborhood or at a dump is determined by the available garbage. The Coppingers calculated that in the tropics it takes about 100 people to produce enough garbage to support seven free-living dogs,” according to the Times.

Extrapolating that to Grand Cayman and its 60,000 human residents (and factoring in garbage from our tourists and cruise visitors), that means our island could probably support a “village dog” population of 10,000 or more.

The dogs that interest the Coppingers “are not mongrels or strays,” but are largely autonomous animals with their own social behaviors. “They have remarkably varied connections to human beings. Some live completely on their own at dumps. Some are neighborhood dogs, recognized and perhaps given handouts by people who live in a certain area. Others may feed and breed on their own, but spend nights at the homes of people,” according to the Times.

These free-breeding dogs outnumber “pet dogs” by three to one, globally. Out of the estimated 1 billion dogs on Earth, some 250 million are pets, and some 750 million are dogs that, as the Times puts it, “don’t have flea collars.”

Those 750 million dogs across the world have much in common with our very own “Cayman mutts,” and we’re not just referring to their lifestyle. “[I]n the tropics … a 30-pound, lion-colored dog is the norm,” Raymond Coppinger said.

These “lion-colored dogs” — much like lionfish — can quickly overrun an area through the power of multiplication. According to the Times, “Although the Coppingers recognize the social cost of animals that are unvaccinated and running free, they argue that killing the dogs, as some countries do during rabies epidemics, does not help. It’s impossible to kill them all, and because they breed rapidly, the population quickly rebounds.”

In other words, no matter how many hundreds of dogs the Department of Agriculture euthanizes per year, or how many animals our various volunteer groups try to adopt out or ship off-island, those efforts will never be enough to put a dint in Cayman’s feral dog population — so long as their food supply remains in abundance.

Remember, these are the same dogs that harass our native blue iguanas to the point of extinction, disrupt people’s sleep with barking and howling throughout the night, dart (or stroll leisurely) through traffic on busy streets, and sometimes gather in gangs to attack pets or even human beings — including, notably, Governor Helen Kilpatrick last July.

According to the Times, “One way or another, village dogs depend on garbage. If society wants fewer dogs in the street, there’s a surefire solution.

“Less garbage.”

Now … about that landfill …

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  1. How about the feral chickens, we have thousands roaming the streets of George Town (soon to be re-named Chicken Town). On my early morning runs I see dozens of them raiding the garbage having realised it is all too easy to peck holes in the plastic garbage sacks. We need to get rid of them!.