Amid the iconic sounds of Fiji – the rolling of the ocean, a church choir – is an unexpected and unwelcome noise: the insistent barking of stray dogs.
The population of stray dogs across the Pacific country has exploded in the last few years, sparked by a dog baby boom, which occurred as neutering initiatives stopped during the pandemic and border closures halted the flow of essential international volunteer vets.
“It’s a huge problem … there are so many dogs,” says Shaneel Narayan, manager of Suva’s SPCA shelter. Naryan estimates that in the capital, Suva, alone, there are between 20,000 and 30,000 dogs on the loose. Some are stray while others are roaming – owned by people but allowed to freely roam the streets.
“In a year we used to desex about 3,000 animals and because of Covid for two years, we couldn’t do any of these programs because of the restrictions,” says Narayan. “[The dogs] have five or six puppies in one litter. So in two years you can imagine how many animals we’re looking at in a neighborhood.”
The dogs themselves are largely left to scavenger for scraps, nurse injuries from abandonment and raise litters in the city outskirts.
Even as neutering services have resumed post-pandemic, SPCA and other animal shelters are struggling to cope with the number of animals.
“Post-Covid it has gone really bad, intake per week we’re looking at around 40 to 50 animals coming into the shelter,” he says. “We are pretty much overwhelmed.”
Stray dogs carry diseases, frequent busy roads and some have even made headlines for vicious attacks on children.
Petero Bole, security guard at the University of the South Pacific, has to remove dogs from the campus. “We have to chase them out,” he says.
“At night-time dogs roam the campus. Suva city council sets traps for them, we get maybe two to three dogs in the morning.”
On the other side of Fiji’s largest island, Viti Levu, the situation is just as dire, especially at the Greater Good Foundation (GGF) in Lautoka, which houses more than 200 dogs in an open sanctuary.
The sanctuary is a jigsaw of fenced pens, each home to dozens of barking and nipping dogs. Mere Ranedi, who cares for the dogs, knows each animal by name. One of the biggest challenges is keeping them fed. “Every day we go through 47 kilograms of rice and 52 kilograms of dal.”
Naomi Nacagilevu, a volunteer with the GGF, says many of the dogs in the sanctuary’s care have experienced abuse.
“Most of the dogs that are there are rescued from the street, some are abandoned by owners, some of them are mammas with puppies that were dumped in Nadi or Lauktoka that we had to rescue.
“Small Fijian boys go past innocent animals and hit them with sticks or kick them … some of them have injured legs from a car accident … pig hunters cut off the dogs’ ears.”
Nacagilevu, who assists in GGF’s trap, neuter and release program (TNR), says it is this mistreatment that has contributed to dog attacks within the community.
“So many people are complaining about dogs charging at people in the community but the reason they are charging and biting people is because of mistreatment they receive from people,” she says.
LR A stray dog overlooks a sunset in Suva, a Suva local spends time with a group of dogs who roam his street
For Nacagilevu, Narayan and other experts, the way forward is a simple three-step process of TNR. By desexing dogs they are hoping to reduce the numbers over several years.
“It won’t work overnight; it takes at least eight to 20 years. It has worked in certain parts of Sri Lanka and the Philippines,” says Narayan.
The dog problem in Fiji has no winners – the animals are subject to abuse, carry disease, bite people, and run across busy roads. Vets are overwhelmed and the community is frustrated with the impact of the animals.
The situation could still get worse, with sanctuaries like the GGF struggling to care for the animals. In July the sanctuary warned that its funds were critically low, leaving it weeks away from closing. It managed to secure enough donations to stay open, but does not have any government funding or corporate partners.
“If we are forced to close, the dogs in our care … would have nowhere to go,” said the charity in a statement in July. As well as reducing the risk to the community, Ranedi says, their sanctuary is the safest place for the dogs. “These dogs are so fortunate to be rescued and brought here.”