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Wednesday 22 January 2020
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Tobago

Silence of the lambs – and dogs

Roaming Tobago sheep -
Roaming Tobago sheep -

ELSPETH DUNCAN

Ben (not his real name) is a pleasant, welcoming man with a charming smile. He takes good care of his three male dogs. One might not think he would poison canines, but the fact that he did is why I am chatting with him on his verandah.

As someone who does not believe in or condone the poisoning of animals (common in Tobago for various reasons), I have suspended judgment to approach the conversation objectively.

Through Ben I want to hear the perspective and understand the thinking of a farmer whose sheep have recently been mauled by roaming dogs.

“Shepherds have been tending to their sheep since biblical times,” Ben said. “In those days it was customary that a shepherd would use measures to protect his flock from lions and wolves whose nature it is to get a meal. Sheep are an easy meal.

“I’ve been rearing small stock (sheep and goat) since primary school. We would sometimes have sheep attacks – and you would never see the dogs. They just kill. They don’t eat. They prefer sheep. Sheep may run but, unlike goats, they remain silent during the kill.”

In TT the poisoning of animals is illegal. However, like dogs that kill sheep, people who poison animals are rarely caught in action.

“Especially if a female is in heat, the dogs will pack and roam in attack mode.” Ben said. “Farmers will tell you that dogs that attack kill the majority of the flock. They bite the throat, tear it up, kill and leave it there. Tethered sheep can’t move away. Even those who are loose won’t move. Sheep are closely bonded.”

Ben explains that a lot of dog attacks take place around now and January, when, some farmers say, “the sheep give off a scent from rain falling on them.”

A few days before our meeting, Ben’s neighbour saw some dogs mauling his sheep and tried to chase them.

“The dogs kept running around him and attacking my sheep. He came to find me at work and we returned to find the dogs panting.”

Six of his eight sheep were severely injured. He took them inside then.

“I took out some meat and threw Roundup (a strong weedicide) on it. I rest it down and four dogs came and ate. Two died. I put them on the back of my van, carried them to the owner and threw the bodies in front his gate. I said, ‘I am seeing about my animals, now you see about yours.’”

The man denied ownership. It is common for farmers to encounter denial from owners of roaming dogs who do not want to compensate for damages, a legal requirement.

“Once dogs kill, they continue to kill,” Ben said. “When you have 20 sheep and you see 17 dead and three badly maimed, you get angry. You drop poison all around your premises, but dogs roam, so most of the time the ones you get didn’t do it.”

I ask Ben what angers him about attacks.

“I tend to my sheep every morning and evening. It is an investment of time and money. I have come home and seen everything dead.”

A message in a farmers’ WhatsApp group tells them what to do after sheep are attacked:

1.Find the owner and seek compensation.

2.If ownership is not established, the dogs can be regarded as feral dogs and fed with poisoned sardines.

People often dump unwanted dogs in Ben’s area. Once, two such dogs began living in the bush behind his house.

“One day they came, killed my sheep and went back in the bush. Next day they returned and killed whatever was living. I got hysterical.”

Ben eventually located the dogs’ bushy hideout.

“I called a colleague of mine and he shot them,” he said.

Ben does not let his three male dogs free at the same time. He rotates them, releasing one or two at a time and leaving the other(s) kennelled or chained.

“Three dogs are more likely to roam and attack.”

One dog will stay close to home.

Ben sees his dogs as alarm systems.

“Down here is terrible. Especially if you do planting or sheep – people steal.”

Sheep averages $16/lb (live weight). Ben, who feeds his sheep to 100 pounds, will lose $1,600 per head if they are stolen or killed.

Full-time farmer Julia (not real name) has a humane approach to protection of her livestock:

“I would never put poison out for cats, dogs or other animals. But unfortunately that happens here for any creature. I have a neighbour who threatened to poison my livestock.

“I set my animals out at a certain time and bring them back at a certain time. I’m a control freak. It’s for safety and love of my goats. Learn to protect and control your animals. Do not let a dog roam. Do not let sheep or goat roam and eat people’s produce. The same way people try to poison dogs and cats, they also poison livestock. It’s a terrible thing and I think it’s Caribbean-wide. When you poison an animal, you can kill and poison people too. It’s upsetting.”

Owners of dogs/livestock, the following humane solutions can help protect your animals, reduce the likelihood of attack and, unlike poisoning, are legal:

1.Spay and neuter your dogs. Spayed females will not go into heat and attract packs of male dogs. Male dogs are less likely to roam once neutered.

2.Call the TTSPCA animal shelter (639-2567) to collect roaming feral dogs.

3.Comfortably secure owned dogs in fenced yards, dog runs, spacious kennels or on run lines; or use Ben’s rotation system.

4.Manage your sheep by keeping them in pens. Tethering them in open public areas comes at your own risk.

5.Maintain healthy communication with other animal owners in your area. If problems arise, work together to find viable solutions.

Be an example of compassion for the younger generation, as they observe and emulate you.

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