TripAdvisor has many postings advising people to avoid taking a vacation in the Caribbean because of the stray dog problem. Individuals regularly post how heartbreaking it was to spend a lot of money on a vacation to a beautiful resort only to be confronted with the sight of stray dogs roaming and often suffering on nearby streets. It is impossible to measure the economic impact stray dogs have on the tourism industry, but I maintain that Caribbean islands have probably lost millions in first-time or even more important return visitors because of the prevalence of stray dogs.
The plight of these dogs pulls at the heartstrings of many tourists. But it's less well-known that they can pose a significant public health risk. Zoonotic diseases, those that can be transmitted from animals to people, including rabies, are common. Roundworm transmitted by dogs can burrow into the skin of unsuspecting sunbathers resulting in a painful skin rash. Ticks are a year round scourge and can cause severe illnesses.
I know about this stray dog problem firsthand because I spend my vacations in St. Martin. During my first visit more than five years ago, I was horrified by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets and moved by their struggle to survive on a daily basis. I decided to do something about it not as an animal activist, but as a tourist who contributes to the local economy.
I contacted local politicians and asked them how they planned to address the stray dog problem. At the same time, I met with a local animal welfare group called I Love My Island Dog. Its founder, Ursula Oppikofer, wanted to help the stray dogs, but her resources were limited. I knew that the only way for Ursula and her group to get attention was to offer compelling arguments on the detrimental effect stray dogs have on the tourism industry.
Our tactic worked. Within a year, I Love My Island Dog had a shelter and adoption center. Most important were the increased spay and neuter services offered, which had an immediate impact on the population of stray dogs. All of this was paid for by the local government in St. Martin. Hotel and restaurant owners were delighted that their guests were no longer exposed to stray dogs in poor conditions begging at their feet.
But this was only the beginning. I knew that for the program to be successful and ongoing that all of the animal groups on St. Martin needed to get together and pool their resources. So on Saturday, June 28th I convened the first St. Martin Animal Protection Summit.
The Summit brought together 15 people from both the French and Dutch sides of the Island to discuss how to end the stray dog overpopulation crisis, ensure that imported dogs do not spread disease and encourage tourism and real estate investments to flourish. The group agreed to pool its resources and bring together executives at tourism-related companies, powerful and wealthy villa owners, and politicians. These individuals all know the negative effect stray dogs have on tourism and are sensitive to the fact that an outbreak of rabies or other diseases could have a devastating impact on the Island's economy.
We will publicize the positive steps St. Martin is taking so that tourists, who have heard about the problems with stray dogs in the Caribbean, will know that the Island has the situation under control. It is our hope that tourism will significantly increase within a year.
Helping these stray dogs in the Caribbean isn't just a kind gesture. It is important to the economy of these islands, whose GNP depends on tourism, and it's a matter of public health that affects both residents and tourists alike.
It is my hope that St. Martin can be a model in the Caribbean of how animal welfare groups can work with all those who have a stake in the economic future of their communities -- a future that can easily be enhanced by effectively and humanely addressing the stray dog issue.