I have never been a lover of dogs. I learnt around ten just how unpredictable and volatile dogs can be. My mother had done conkies and asked me to take some over by an ‘auntie’s’. Aunty had a mutt called Poopsie. I ran up to Poopsie, as I usually did, and attempted to pat her on the head. She gnarled and snapped at me.
A shocked me ran to Aunty complaining bitterly. She explained that Poopsie had perhaps smelled the food I was bringing and was only trying to get it. It all seemed like too much for a ‘friend’ of mine to do because she wanted a conkie. The experience left me with a permanent trepidation for dogs, no matter the size or breed.
When I woke up last Saturday to the news of the tragic death of Verona Gibson, I could feel the pain, confusion and fear she perhaps experienced at her death. I thought about the occurrence the entire weekend. Of course, I now live in an adult world and few things are simple. Apart from my fear and dislike of dogs, my children own an Akita/Rottweiler. They own it in spite of my feelings about dogs. They own it because I try, wherever possible, not to simply pass on my own shortcomings and fears to them.
Notwithstanding, you must understand now that I was feeling quite vindicated in my feelings about dogs after reading of the attack. I needed advice on what was a sensible way to put all this together. I therefore reached out to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA). I have always admired the work of the RSPCA and I have always been impressed by their willingness to engage where the interest of animals required that engagement.
The information I got is worth a general share. I asked the RSPCA representative how such trag-edies occur and what could have avoided it. Her point of departure was that owners of pets simply had to be responsible for their animals. She explained that pets needed adequate bonding time with owners and adequate space. Although her explanation sounded simple enough, I immediately overlaid it onto the Barbadian landscape.
Our communities are closely knit. Many houses, especially in the urban areas, have a finite amount of land space. What really constituted reasonable space with respect to having a dog? The representative explained that this space issue was not only about how big a property was but also how many dogs were kept on the property. Dogs, like people, need personal space and she noted that in some cases, owners were simply keeping too many dogs for the accommo-dations they have.
The RSPCA representative noted that dogs should be allowed running chains during the day and not just be confined to a kennel. She also indicated that best practice was that the dog should be a part of the household. It should be able to come into the house. Again, mix best practice with culture. Does the average Barbadian see a dog as a member of the family in that way?
Even if the dog is on a running chain during the day, how many owners take the time to socialize with their animals and walk them? How many introduce the animal to a new girlfriend or baby joining the family? How many owners know the characteristics of the breed of dog they own and the specific temperament of their individual dog? How many know the characteristics of a dog in heat? How many of them know how to construct a fence or ‘paling’ with the correct precautions for dogs not to be able to burrow? How many people have invested in the idea of neutering dogs?
The RSPCA supports a policy of spaying animals as early as 4-5 months as long as the owner does not wish to have puppies. The representative explained that animals in heat were generally more irritable and caused major disruption in a community. If a dog is in heat and other dogs from outside the community try to mate, there will be issues of territory and space ensuing. There will also be the usual issues attendant with strangers meeting. Dogs negotiating these spatial and rank issues can be irritable and easier to anger.
Hence, a person could walk into this negotiation of power and space between dogs and end up in serious danger without having done anything else. The RSPCA representative lamented that where dog owners had been once bringing dogs to their centre on Spring Garden to receive shots, check-ups and education about their animals, a black market had sprung up that now made vac-cines and antibiotics easily available to dog owners. This means that the education and tips which accompanied the RSPCA visits for owners was not happening.
I asked the representative from the RSPCA about the various dog mixes that we were seeing in Barbados. She described some of the mixes as ‘dreadful combinations’ resulting in animals not at all well suited for Barbados. As an example, she noted that Akitas had a heavy coat because of where they originated from. She explained that mixing them with a dog that has another heavy coat could lead to skin and fur changes that made the mixed dog very sensitive to heat. This causes issues in a climate like Barbados.
The RSPCA representative also made the point that certain dogs needed freedom and space more than others and keeping them in our closely knit communities and yards could make them irrita-ble. Certain dogs also did not like high pitched noises or jerky hand movements and these simple things could act as triggers. All of this information left me wondering how those responsible for the regulation of animals in Barbados will create the kind of information channels and behavioural change so critical for Barbadians and dogs to live in safe proximities of each other.
The Animal Control Unit (ACU) is the government entity charged with the responsibility of the management of dogs. Under the Dog Licensing and Control Act Cap 177, owners are required to license their animals. Any dog seen wandering without supervision and an adequate collar can be dealt with by the ACU. That sounds good in principle but it is not enough. We know it is not enough because, ever so often, we have a dog on person event with a tragic outcome.
Of course, my every call to the ACU was unanswered. It is a government department. We know how that goes. So open questions. I have many but we start. Is there a limit for the type of dogs an owner can have in a school zone? Are there inspectors that check conditions before dog li-censes are issued? Are regular training programmes for dog owners mounted? If the ACU seems unable to manage its task, should we privatize and let the RSPCA get more resources to do the wonderful job they do?
Verona, walk good! Thank you for your years of nursing service. My deepest sympathies and support to her surviving family.
(Marsha Hinds Layne is a full-time mummy and part-time lecturer in communications at the University of the West Indies.