JCT: What are some of the unique issues and problems pets and their owners face in the CNMI?
ET: The main challenge we face in the CNMI is that most of the people out here have grown up without the services of a small animal veterinarian. Because of this, many people here honestly have no idea what their responsibilities are to their pets. It's as simple as that. Keep in mind this is how I grew up.
JCT: If I am a pet owner with a limited budget like a lot of people here, what are the most important and cost effective things I can do to give my pet a better quality of life?
ET: The very simple answer is to remember that owning a pet is an option. No one forces you to have a pet. Taking care of that pet is not an option, it's an obligation not only to the pet, but to your family, your neighbors and your community. God gave us dominion over the animals and this means he gave us responsibility for their care. When we run into problems with this is when we try to sidestep our responsibility and make someone else responsible for our lives, or pets, as the case may be. So if you're truly unable to care for a pet, don't get one in the first place. It only leads to headaches, heartaches, and very bad feelings of guilt. Once you choose to bring a pet into your home and your heart, you need to jealously guard that pet from disease and this means preventative health care. It costs little to prevent disease, and much to treat the same disease, not to mention the emotional toll that a sick pet takes on the family. Before you get a pet, call the veterinarian and get an idea of what the likely cost will be. My wife Susan wants me to write an article titled, "How much does a FREE puppy cost?" Good point.
JCT: What advice would you offer the local government to deal with the problem of the large stray dog population on island? Also, do you have any thoughts on the anti-animal cruelty bill that seems to be languishing in the legislature?
ET: Very simple, enforce the laws that are already on the books. Prosecute those that steal and abuse pets. I know of no society that turns a blind eye to theft or destruction of private property, even if it's a dog or a cat. Enforce the laws equitably. More laws isn't the answer to unenforced laws. There are already an abundance of applicable laws that could be enforced but aren't. When the people of Saipan want an anti-cruelty law they'll pass one, but in the meantime, enforce the laws that are already on the books.
JCT: If the animal shelter is actually built, are there dangers that the dogs living in close contact could pass disease to each other, and if so, how can that be prevented?
ET: Very good question. This is my greatest fear if a shelter is forced through before the government is truly committed to its upkeep. Shelters tend to become cesspools of disease if not properly managed, and I see little commitment on anyone's part to actually run a shelter the way it should be run. Besides that, Saipan already has a shelter. It's called Paradise Island Animal Hospital , and it costs the government of Saipan, and the people of Saipan, nothing to run it. It is financed by those that bring in their pets for care, that is, those that do, not just complain. Not many in the government know about it precisely because it costs them nothing, and it doesn't show up on anyone's budget -- except mine.
JCT: Please explain why spaying and neutering is important, and is there a way with medical advancements that the indigent people here would be able to do this in a cost effective fashion that might even help diminish the large stray population?
ET: Spaying for female dogs and neutering for male dogs is part of preventative medicine. Spaying prevents breast cancer, uterine infections and prevents unwanted puppies and kittens. It also keeps us from losing our favorite pets during the birthing process, which happens quite a bit on Saipan to non-spayed females. Neutered male dogs tend to stay home, tend not to get hit by cars and get injured in dog fights, which keeps the pets healthier and the owners happier because they aren't spending money they don't have. Spayed and neutered dogs also tend to live much, much longer with a better quality of life than their non-spayed and non-neutered cousins because of the above. We spayed more dogs and cats last year than in any previous year -- all without the aid of subsidies. We have expanded the services offered by Paradise Island Animal Hospital way beyond what it was when I got here and this has been based purely on demand for more and better services by my clientele.
The best way for me to save people money is to stress preventative care, not to provide cheap, ineffective care. If the dogs and cats are vaccinated, they don't get sick so the owner doesn't have to worry about not having enough money for the treatment. If the dog or cat is examined once a year and checked for parasites and other problems, any health challenges that are found can be caught earlier and treated easier and cheaper than by waiting until the pet is sick. People know that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. What they don't know is that an ounce of prevention is lighter than a feather, while a pound of cure can be very heavy to bear.
JCT: What is it like to be the vet, in terms of the emotional highs and lows, of a place with an animal population in such distress?
ET: Relative to "an animal population in distress," I don't see that. I've seen nothing but positive change in the seven years I've been here. It is a daily improvement and that keeps me high on what is happening on Saipan. When I got here the best pet owners were the mainlanders with the "locals" barely showing up on the radar screen. What a lot of people didn't know however, was how much these people wanted good veterinary care for their pets. Now the best pet owners are my Chamorro and Carolinian clients, followed closely by the Japanese and then the mainlanders. People here don't necessarily do as much prevention as I would like, but they never give up on their pets when they bring them in for care. In that respect it's much more rewarding practicing out here than on the mainland. People are gradually learning about the benefits of preventative health care for their pets. People out here love and care for their pets the same as on the mainland. The ugly story that "locals" don't take care of their pets is just not true. The numbers of neglected pets per capita on the mainland is much higher than out there. On the mainland, the local animal control keeps unwanted pets off the streets and puts them to death to accomplish this. We don't have this option on Saipan, so when you look at the number of strays vs. the numbers that would be running loose on the mainland without animal control continually removing them, we are doing much better out here than they are on the mainland. Our problems are just more visible. Millions of dogs and cats are put to sleep every year on the mainland due to rampant neglect of pets. How can we think that we are qualified to lecture anyone else on how to take care of their pets when we can't manage it in our own country?
People on Saipan want better care for their pets, not cheaper, lower quality care. Jesus made the comment that "The poor will always be among us". Our benchmark should not be the poor, or neglectful pet owners for they will always be among us. Let's benchmark our efforts based on the behavior of the responsible pet owners. This number is growing rapidly on Saipan and it has little to do with financial ability. To be sure, we will never be totally free of stray dogs and cats, and this is where the local government will need to step up at some point with a leash law (already on the books but unenforced) and a decent shelter (already on the books but not provided), but not before the commitment is there. Saipan can become a model for good pet ownership throughout Micronesia with very little effort.
Jeffrey C. Turbitt is the language arts department chairman at Saipan Southern High School, as well as an avid scuba diver and traveler. He offers more thoughts in his blog Hypercritical Thoughts at: www.turbittj.blogspot.com/ He welcomes feedback, tips and story ideas at firstname.lastname@example.org. His column appears regularly on Wednesdays.