Caribbean Connection, From the Bay to the Blue Ridge

Dog (and Cat) Days in the Virgin Islands

Dog (and Cat) Days in the Virgin Islands

by Jeff McCord

“She’s a West Indian sled dog,” I would explain to bewildered island children. “You know, the kind of dog that pulls sleds in the snow and lives with Eskimos.”

These were kids who had never seen snow, however. My white Siberian husky, whom I walked daily in their neighborhood, was nearly as exotic to them as a polar bear hunting on the banks of the Potomac River would be to you.

All they really needed to understand, though, was that the dog loved children and had the softest, fluffiest fur imaginable for petting and hugging.

Molly the husky had moved with us to the island of St. John from Fauquier County more than seven years ago. Far from being disoriented by the alien, otherworldly tropical fauna and flora, this dog- who had been born on a Spotsylvania farm and spent her first six years in the Virginia Piedmont – thrived from day one on the island. Whether chasing (and occasionally catching and dispatching) iguanas, wild chickens or confronting wandering cows and pigs, she adapted seamlessly to her new life. At the ripe old age (for a big dog) of 13, she recently passed on to a presumably better place — leaving behind our earthly paradise of palm trees and coral beaches.

On the laid back Virgin Islands Molly left behind, most humans take good care of their dogs and cats. They are prized members of small, somewhat isolated American and British communities vulnerable to the vagaries of nature and buffeted by seasonal population changes.

With all the coming and going, and the sad reality that not all humans are as animal loving as we would wish, there is a need on each island for animal rescue groups. On St. John, the non-profit Animal Care Center (ACC) fills that role.

The ACC accepts virtually all dogs and cats it has room for and will not euthanize animals for whom it cannot find a home. Sometimes they care for animals for years before placing them with a new family.

Although operating on a small island with a permanent population of only about 4,500, ACC’s accomplishments are impressive. Last year, of 92 dogs taken in, 72 were placed in new homes. My family had adopted a Yorkshire terrier pup to keep the then aging husky young at heart.

And, ACC has a very active cat care program, providing shelter and seeking homes for an average of 50 each year. (My family took in two kittens.) The group also provides and maintains several feral cat feeding stations as part of its “trap, neuter, release” program. Each year, the group humanely catches, neuters, vaccinates and releases about 250 cats that cannot otherwise be cared for. (With ACC’s help, we provided a home to one young cat that arrived on our porch and needed doctoring.)

While the departure of seasonal workers and residents can lead to abandoned pets, the thousands of tourists who visit each year are an invaluable resource for ACC. Hundreds of visitors take part in ACC’s “VolunTourist” program. While dog walking is the most popular tourist activity, they also clean cages and perform other necessary care tasks. Tourists also bring down supplies such as pet collars and leashes, flea medicines and water bowls.

Some tourists even adopt animals and take them back home at the end of their vacation. Others volunteer to act as airplane escorts to help deliver pets to adoptive families in their home town or region.

Volunteer pet escorts are critical to ACC’s very active off-island placement program. While the adopters pay for transportation, the ACC handles all the paperwork and provides logistical help. Most dogs adopted by off-island families relocate to the East Coast of the U.S. Homes have also been found for dogs as far away as Seattle, Los Angeles, Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa.

Beyond providing shelter and facilitating adoption, the ACC offers other important services. Islanders can take advantage of free spaying and neutering for their pets.  Owners can also purchase pet food at cost from the group.

Importantly, the ACC also plays an informational and educational role for pet owners and the wider community. In the West Indies, cock and dog fighting is part of the culture, though illegal. Change in how animals are viewed comes slowly, although progress is being made.

All of this is costly. Heart worm, for instance, is a rampant problem for sheltered dogs in our tropical environment. Treatment costs about $700 per dog and at any one time ACC may be caring for several afflicted animals.

With growth in St. John’s hospitality industry (and with it, a rise in transient resident workers), the need for the shelter has never been greater. ACC is growing out of the building it currently rents from the local government in Cruz Bay, the island’s largest town.

To keep pace, ACC recently purchased three acres in St. John’s Coral Bay community. Arrangements and plans for a larger building with bigger dog runs and other state-of-the-art facilities are in progress. Those familiar with St. John will be interested to learn the shelter will be located on very rural, flat land behind the popular deli Pickles in Paradise.

Beyond already adopting three pets, my family helps in other ways. My son volunteers to help care for animals in the shelter and, with the loss of our beloved husky, we may want to adopt another dog before too long.

In addition to good hearted volunteers and adopters, however, the ACC needs money. With plans for construction of a new, permanent home crystallizing, financial donations have never been more important. Readers interested in contributing to the cause – including volunteering when visiting St. John or pet adoption – should contact Ryan Moore, ACC’s shelter manager, at 340-774-1625 or stjacc@islands.VI.

Jeffrey R. McCord is a free-lance journalist whose work has appeared in the Wall Street Journal, Gannett newspapers and, among other publications. For more than 20 years he’s called Northern Virginia home. Jeff is the author of two fact-based Caribbean novels available on   “Undocumented Visitors in a Pirate Sea,” a quarter-finalist in the 2014 Amazon Breakthrough Novel contest; and, “Santa Anna’s Gold in a Pirate Sea,” a finalist in the 2016 Next Generation Indie Book contest. He now divides his time between Virginia and St. John, USVI.

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