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Galapagos 20 - co-existence through compassion

After 4 plane rides over 2 days from the US to the Galapagos Islands, we are finally on the infamous Isabela fibra boat. These boats are notorious for throwing everyone around as you traverse the oceans troughs and peaks between Santa Cruz and Isabela Islands. 

I look across and see the country singer and international rock star, Emmylou Harris's head bop back and forth as she tries to sleep through this ordeal. She is a trooper and makes the near 3 hour journey with a smile. She has brought her grandchildren on this Animal Balance campaign, because this is our 20th Anniversary trip and she wanted to show them 'really impactful animal rights work'. They scream and laugh as the boat tips the peak and slams down into the troughs. The rest of the team hold onto their 'sick bags' wishing for the final dock.

All 25 of us arrive on Isabela Island and are greeted by our friends and colleagues from ABG, the protectors of biodiversity and biosecurity for the Galapagos Islands. Their job is to keep any non-native being or entity out of the islands, a very tough job as it includes insects to viruses to dogs and cats. That is where we intersect, because wherever there are humans, there are cats, dogs, rats, mice, chickens etc. We are a 'package deal' globally, even in pristine environments like the Galapagos. Most people do not know that people do live on the islands, actually 35,000 people live on the islands. Most used to work in the fishing industry, but now most people work in tourism. Swarms of humans visit each day. Over 100,000 each year.  The Galapagos National Park Service and ABG work tirelessly to protect the islands from 'us and our entourage of species'. 

20 years ago we created the humane animal management program, after which it evolved into an island wide program that has been accepted and is now managed by the Ecuadorian Government. The program has worked to humanely manage the cats and dogs, while protecting the native species who share the same space. Our goal was to create a program that worked to protect all species who call the Galapagos Islands home by empowering the community and providing the key resources that were needed.

Initially, our vet teams were visiting up to 4 times a year, visiting Santa Cruz, Isabela, San Cristobal and Floreana Islands. By 2008, we had fixed 80% of the dog population, per the CIMEI (collaboration of all key Galapagos institutions) census data. Around that time the islands were linked to the internet and that sparked the smuggling of purebred dogs and consequently that led to small-time puppy mills in the highlands (farm areas) of each island. Now we are fixing all breeds of dogs, who of course have all sorts of medical issues as these are not 'Darwinian Island Dogs', as we used to dub them, who we used to see in 2004-2008. Those dogs were 'fit' for the environment, but the Huskies and brachycephalic dogs are having a very difficult existence there. Their proximity to the native wildlife makes this program essential and imperative. For 20 years, we have been managing the cat and dog populations, while we watch more and more people visit and move to the islands. The human impact on the islands is THE most devastating invasion.  

Our colleagues at ABG Santa Cruz also took the boat over to Isabela to celebrate the anniversary with us, the community and ABG Isabela. After a week of providing vet care at our spay/neuter clinic, which has evolved into a community vet clinic, we held a Festival Of Coexistence! Many dogs and their families had been attending daily dog training classes and they were excited to demonstrate their new skills at the festival. Emmylou, Jean Pierre (the Director of ABG) and myself were the judges. Emmylou whispered to me, would it be okay if all the dogs won?, I whispered back, yes!' Every being was a winner.

Animal Balance has ensured that key veterinary resources have reached the islands for the past 20 years.  We have kept a lid on the cat and dog populations, provided the leashes, collars, harnesses, dog training and more to ensure everyone has what they need to take responsibility for their pets. Without this program many of the island's delicate native species would not be there today. Hearts and minds have changed from killing dogs to taking responsibility for each of the dogs as family members.

The Galapagos Islands acts as a learning laboratory for all of us in truly understanding what the Survival of the Fittest means and our program demonstrates how we can create logical and humane programs to balance the species so all can survive and thrive. 

Emma Clifford

CEO and Founder of Animal Balance

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