Before moving to a new country it’s easy to have an idealised view of what relocating will be like, and how your new expat life will pan out. Once the honeymoon period is over, you often have to get to grips with the reality of your adopted country and its culture. Expats often have to familiarise themselves with beliefs or attitudes that are markedly different to those in their home countries. It might be views surrounding gender, sexuality, religion, race, social mores, family, education or work that are taken for granted at home. Culture shock can be a real issue and, since moving to Mauritius, my own experience of this has been concerning animal welfare. Coming from a country where people treat their pets as a part of their family, the difference is startling, and I struggled to cope with my feelings at first.
I was discovering injured, pregnant and ill stray animals and quickly realised I had to either do something myself, or learn to ignore what I was seeing.
Mauritius has a massive stray dog problem, with approximately 60,000 stray dogs. The climate is tropical, and apart from cyclones, the warmer temperatures do nothing to naturally curb the population or breeding behaviour. Everywhere you go there are pregnant or lactating females and mangy, malnourished animals roaming about. When you consider that one intact female and male dog, and their offspring, can produce around five hundred puppies in only three years you can see the kind of problems that the island – roughly the same size as an average English county – is facing. When we first arrived it took me a while to realise that many of the dogs I was seeing in residential areas were actually owned dogs, such was their poor condition. The actual strays tend to congregate in car parks, the sugar cane fields, beaches and anywhere where there is a ready supply of food lying around.
For anyone who wants to help, there's no established safety net like you might find in other countries – the two big shelters, and a few smaller ones, try their absolute best but are always completely overwhelmed. Although I’d always volunteered at animal shelters – first in the UK, and later in Cape Town – it was always from a safe distance, with trained professionals on the front line, doing the most distressing work. This changed when I moved here, and I had to face cruelty and neglect head-on. I was discovering injured, pregnant and ill stray animals and quickly realised I had to either do something myself, or learn to ignore what I was seeing.
My first stray was a young female who lived in the North of island. She’d been living in the grounds of an apartment complex and the landlord had told the residents he was going to shoot her the following day. I saw a plea on Facebook for help and, as nobody else had responded, decided to go and get her with a view to fostering her in the short-term. She was around two years old, and we later discovered had been sterilised and broken her back leg at some point. She needed to be given a sedative as she was absolutely terrified of going in the car and chewed her way through part of the plastic carrier we put her in. The idea of fostering her was quickly abandoned as soon as she came home; when my children met her it was love at first sight and she’s been with us ever since. She’s truly one of the funniest, quirkiest little dogs I’ve ever met.
Since then we’ve taken four more dogs into our home, and they have all been rescued from terrible situations. My two older dogs (the black and white ones in the photo below) – that I was feeding and treating as strays – were caught by MSAW (the ironically named Mauritius Society for Animal Welfare). This organisation generally catches animals and the owners have just three days to claim them before they are killed – as you can imagine, most strays don’t stand a chance. Luckily, we managed to track them down and get them out of there at the eleventh hour. We couldn’t return them to the streets as they were both too friendly and would have been caught again, nor could we rehome them as we discovered they were both suffering from cancer, and needed chemotherapy. The smallest of the two (we think she’s around ten years old) is now doing battle with another type of cancer, and we’re hoping she can beat it again.
During our early months of being here, we found a box of five abandoned two week old puppies in a car park. We had to hand-rear them, which was something we had no experience of and was incredibly hard-work. Due to the risk of vomiting and diarrhoea, which can quickly kill newborn pups, we treated them exactly the same as human babies, sterilising their bottles and feeding them around the clock. We were poor substitutes for their real mother, but luckily they all made it. We kept one of them and re-homed the rest. We also rescued another young female, a local dog, who was obviously being neglected and had had hot tar thrown over her at some point. She used to join us on dog-walks and, when she showed up on our doorstep one day, we couldn't turn her away.
In addition to the dogs we adopted, I also rescued two mothers with fourteen pups between them, and re-homed another four puppies that had been dumped in a drain. With the help of some amazing people, I sent one of the mothers (the pregnant female pictured) to the UK, and rehomed the other in Mauritius (the brown dog at the top and bottom of this post). The little brown and white dog had a fractured leg, and was living in the sugar cane by my children’s school. Luckily she also found a lovely home in the UK.
Though a difficult task, I made it my mission to capture as many totally feral dogs for spaying and neutering as possible. It was worth the time, effort and patience not only in terms of reducing puppy numbers, but also preventing male aggression and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. I still see some of the dogs I managed to sterilise / neuter and they're doing well - no puppies to raise for the females, and less reason to fight for the males.
The absolute worst experience for me was when I found a large juvenile male who had been run over and left to die by the side of the road with two broken legs. He’d been literally starving to death for several days, couldn’t move and was covered from head to toe in ticks. We didn’t think he would survive when I brought him home, but we managed to nurse him back to health and re-homed him a few months later.
Compared to adopting shelter dogs, taking in dogs directly off the street has its own set of challenges. The most obvious one is that they have generally never been in a house or car before, so things need to be introduced slowly – loud noises from washing machines and vacuum cleaners can be particularly unsettling for them at first. Walking them on a lead can be a bit of a challenge too initially, but ours have improved over time. They can be a bit food obsessed, and tend to wolf their meals down very quickly! They also haven’t lost their need to hunt – mainly birds, mammals and reptiles – which has been a bit distressing on occasion. Luckily we’ve not really had problems with house training as our four females are particularly fastidious and prefer to do their business as far away from the house as possible.
Another issue is health, as strays tend to be exposed to a multitude of serious diseases and infections, including parvo virus and distemper. One of the pups I rehomed had parvo and we almost lost him, but luckily he managed to pull through. Our older male contracted ehrlichiosis, a nasty tick-borne disease which can cause severe illness if left untreated. TVT, a sexually transmitted disease which causes cancerous tumours, is rife and affected two of our dogs. Most females will have had pups several times a year, and this is very hard on them physically. Our older female’s skin and teeth were in particularly bad shape when we got her, probably from having lots of litters over the years. Because of car accidents and general abuse, broken bones are also common – five of the dogs I’ve rescued had untreated broken legs.
One thing that can be a concern is how strays will interact with children. Luckily we've never had a problem. We’ve tried to teach our daughters from a young age how to behave around dogs that they don’t know, and how to deal with any issues they might encounter with the ones that they do. They’ve volunteered in shelters, helped look after the puppies and injured dogs we’ve rescued, and thoroughly enjoy being around animals. That said, we don’t take anything for granted, even now that they’re both older and require less supervision.
Having so many dogs can mean they invariably have the odd fight, especially at the start when they are getting to know one another. Overall though our dogs have bonded well, and I generally find that Maurichiens (as they're known locally), are better-behaved, and less aggressive than their domestic counterparts.
Many rescuers find they burn out emotionally and it can put a huge amount of pressure on family and finances. For expats, this can be further complicated by a lack of local knowledge, language skills and supportive networks. For various reasons I've had to take a break from being on the front-lines, which hasn't been easy – I've cared deeply for every one of the animals I've rescued and have found helping them a rewarding, life-changing experience. Although the situation here is depressing and distressing at times, I've discovered that there is a dynamic community of caring and determined Mauritians – especially younger people – who are taking an active role in rescuing strays and challenging the negative cultural attitudes towards the animals that live here. They are doing an amazing job, and they give me lots of hope for the future. Their initiatives, alongside those of the dedicated shelters (with their fantastic sterilisation and education campaigns), will go a long way to help reduce the stray animal population and promote the health and well-being of animals in this part of the world.
If you're interested in supporting the stray dogs and cats of Mauritius, please look here: