On the island of Guam, which has a landmass roughly equivalent to that of Chicago and a population of approximately 172,952 residents, a pressing and unsustainable issue has emerged—a surging population of stray dogs.
The most solid numbers on the issue come from The Humane Society International, which came out with a survey in 2014, estimating that there are about 60,000 dogs on the island, 23,000 of those being free roaming. In 2020, Senator Clynt Ridgell (D) introduced Bill 299-35, aiming to assist the Guam Department of Agriculture in curbing the stray animal population. This bill advocates for rounding up stray animals while urging residents to license, microchip, and leash their pets to prevent them from being captured during the round-up. Several groups are working together to address this, many with dissenting opinions on how to approach the issue.
Unchecked breeding has led to an increase in the stray dog population, leading to several unintended problems for the inhabitants of the island.
Mariana Q. Turner, territorial veterinarian for the Guam Department of Agriculture, Division of Animal Health, confirms that with the new school year starting, there have already been reported issues with kids trying to get to and from the bus at the bus stop where there are packs of stray dogs, many of which have reportedly bit students. Many schools even have free-roaming dogs that come into the property.
“In the most recent case we did, two dogs went into someone’s property and ended up tearing out the front fender of their car, scratching and pulling out some wires from the other car that was parked on the driveway,” said Mathew Demapan, one of the four Animal Control Officers (ACO) on the island.
Demapan, who began working as an ACO on November 15, 2021, assures that so much of his job is addressing not only stray dogs taking over neighborhoods but protecting them from residents themselves.
“I have a lot of abuse and neglect cases that we’ll get every now and then. Dogs that are malnourished, and you can see every bone in their body,” said Demapan. However, “with four officers and two working vehicles for the entire island of Guam, [and] who knows the population of the stray dogs, it’s nearly impossible to get to everyone,” he said.
Ciera Tamayo, Vice President of Guahan Paws for Pets, a non-profit animal shelter on the island, said that in many cases, locals are apathetic and maybe resentful of the strays in their vicinity.
“Me and my kids, we don’t just rescue, but we also care for a lot of the animals on the street,” she said. “We get approached, harassed, yelled, and death threatened more for being kind to an animal, for feeding an animal, than [the] people that do harmful things.”
According to Turner, the culture for many on the island allows dogs to be kept outside, either out of habit or protection or residents simply take in multiple strays.
“Hoarders would be the most eye-opening cases that I’ve done throughout my short career here at Animal Control,” said Demapan. He classifies these cases in two: people who will go out and help an injured animal, possibly take it home, do that same process over and over again, to the point where they’re kind of overwhelmed, and those who become oblivious to it. In those cases, these animals become dangerous to the person and their neighbors.
“In dealing with a situation like that, when you enter a home where you’re seeing 20 dogs and then 20 cats in the next room and the owners see that as if there is nothing wrong with it, that’s always the biggest challenge, is trying to get them to see what you want them to see,” he said.
Tina Guzman, Founder of GAIN, believes that extreme yet common cases such as these are due to a lack of enforcement, education, and a well-rounded understanding of the issue by the government of Guam.
“Pet microchipping, they’re trying to make that mandatory, and they’re thinking that that’s going to slow down the stray population. I don’t for one, I don’t agree with that, just like pet licensing,” said Guzman, referring to Senator Clynt Ridgell Bill, which allows the Department of Agriculture to capture, impound, and humanely euthanize any stray animals that are deemed a danger to the community.
“I don’t agree that that’s going to control the population. What’s going to control the pet population is education. You need to get the public educated on spay and neuter, that second, spay and neuter it has to be enforced,” said Guzman.
The overwhelming solution agreed upon by Turner, Guzman, Demapan, and Tamayo is a spay and neuter program. However, until February of last year, there wasn’t a really robust low-cost spay and neuter program on the island.
The program involves collaboration between the Guam Department of Agriculture and a nonprofit animal shelter, Guam Animals in Need (GAIN). Mariane mentioned that they work closely with the shelter and conduct surgeries at the shelter’s clinic. The program charges $50 for dogs and cats, male or female, and they have spayed and neutered over 3,000 animals since their opening. A number that would have taken them three years to reach in any other circumstances.
When capturing a stray animal, Demapan explains, all ACOs hand over these strays to GAIN staff members who will try to determine whether the animal is adoptable. They analyze its health and behavior before moving on with the adoption process, which is where most are spayed or neutered. Unfortunately, If they do not fit this criteria, they are mainly euthanized.
The funding for this program consists only of local grants, “On the government side, it’s really challenging to find any grants, federal grants or nonprofit grants for support, specifically [on] the animal control side,” said Mariane.
““There isn’t enough shelter, and the government of Guam isn’t even willing to, like, expand GAIN, so there isn’t enough shelter,” said Guzman.
Up until now, most locals have had to rely on local and private clinics, which are often cost-prohibitive for a lot of people. It’s also challenging and expensive to get animals off the island to another place to get them adopted. Some groups, like the Boonie Flight Project, work on getting animals directly adopted stateside by partnering with rescue groups to get animals into other shelters where the rescue groups adopt them for them.
However, because the only commercial airline that flies from Guam to the mainland is United, and they are currently not flying pets, it becomes even more challenging. In some cases, they have to work with chartered flights, which, according to Mariane, happens about once every quarter and costs about $6,000.
Some issues the spay and neuter program runs into is with the law and whether or not the Trap, Neuter, and Release (TNR) method is considered immoral. Because of this, most rescue groups or private citizens bringing in strays will claim them as theirs, get them spayed and neutered, and release them back into their neighborhoods.
Because of this, there is no government-sponsored TNR program.
Spay and neuter programs are crucial because they represent the most effective and humane approach to reducing the stray population while also lowering the risk of conflicts between citizens and animals. Effective programs result in fewer aggressive female strays trying to protect their young and fewer territorial males prone to aggressive behavior, ultimately creating safer communities.
Editor’s note: Updated to explain what bill 299-35 was meant to do.
Correction: Ciera Tamayo is the Vice President of Guahan Paws for Pets, not of Guam Animals in Need.