I recently returned from a two-week trip to Ometepe Island in Nicaragua to conduct ecological and behavioral field research on insects with 15 undergraduate and graduate students. Although we were primarily studying insects and plants, it was impossible to ignore the dogs that roamed all around the island on which we worked. Everything about their lives and about their appearance, too, was so different from the dogs we are accustomed to seeing here in the United States.
Almost all of the dogs on Ometepe Island were unbelievably skinny with ribs and hipbones sticking out, almost grotesquely in some cases. They have no owners and no families and no particular people to take care of them. None receive veterinary care of any kind, and the hope of help for behavioral problems is even more remote. They scavenge food wherever they can find it: in garbage, from the forest in the form of fruits, insects, and carrion, and they beg tourists for food. In fact, the only dogs I saw who looked properly fed were the few that hung out at either the biological station at which we worked, or the hostel where we spent a few nights. Both of these places have a regular influx of people from countries in which dogs are considered family members and these visitors feed the dogs.
Many of the females have frequent litters of puppies. One emaciated female had a litter of four-week old puppies when I was there in July 2007, and she had a new litter of about five or six weeks old pups in March 2008. Both times, she whelped in the hollow base of a tree trunk along a path that we nicknamed, appropriately enough, the puppy trail. These puppies, as well as the adult dogs living on the island are exposed to all sort of biting and stinging insects, scorpions, ticks, and the extreme heat and humidity of the tropics.
On the other hand, there are advantages in the lifestyle of these dogs, too. Unlike so many of our own pampered pets, these dogs get to be outside a lot, and they are certainly not bored. I’m not saying the trade-off is worth it, as clearly many of these dogs suffer greatly in terms of health, nutrition, and quality of life, but I do want to point out some advantages, too. There is something to be said for having to work for a living, and these dogs are indeed doing that. I just wish more of them had greater success at it.
Perhaps because their lives are so preoccupied with a never-ending quest to get enough food, I observed very little play behavior, even among young dogs who were regularly seen together. Play tends to occur only when other, more immediate needs have already been met, and in familiar situations in which animals are comfortable. When animals must spend all of their time searching for food or other resources, there is no time for play. The only dogs I ever saw engage in play were two young dogs at the biological field station where we lived and conducted our research during our stay in Nicaragua. These two dogs were approximately 8-10 months old, unrelated according to the staff there, and quite well fed. Their nutritional status was a result of a stream of biologists feeding them leftovers, much to the horror of the local people, many of whom have experienced times of hunger themselves and did not approve of or appreciate precious food resources being given so casually to dogs.
Traveling is always enlightening, and it is interesting to note how different members of society, no matter what the species, are perceived and treated across different cultures. It is essential to keep in mind the role that economics plays in the treatment of animals. Nicaragua is one of the poorest countries in the western hemisphere. The memory of the abuses suffered by the people at the hands of the few powerful members of the government before the 1979 revolution and the loss of thousands of lives and massive suffering that resulted from Hurricane Mitch (and the resulting floods and landslides from which the country has still not fully recovered) a short 10 years ago are still very fresh in the minds of many citizens. Getting enough to eat and basic survival are real concerns for a considerable proportion of the population. Nicaraguans, like other people everywhere, choose to feed their children first, and I hope nobody questions my great love of dogs when I say that, as a parent, I respect that. Only when poverty everywhere is adequately addressed by the worldwide community can the lives of individuals of all species be expected to improve.