Meet the street animals that stole scientists’ hearts

By | June 27, 2021

Archaeologist Lewis Hitchcock went to Israel in 2017 to look for artifacts from the Iron Age. He also found something else – a big dog that wormed its way into his heart.

When he appeared at the excavation site where Hitchcock, who studied Greek prehistory at the University of Melbourne in Australia, was working, Mongrel was thin and thin. A previous owner had apparently abandoned him, and none of the local families wanted him. “I loved him, and I could never leave him again,” Hitchcock says. Feeling apprehensive, he sent her home.

Today, the 35-kilogram Saluki Mix, named Fred, enjoys a walk and tummy massage. Although he was fearful and sometimes aggressive in Israel, he has since become sweet and friendly, Hitchcock says. “He will now go to strangers and scratch his neck.”

Like Hitchcock, many researchers spend substantial time in the field, where they may encounter large numbers of homeless cats and dogs. For some scientists, animals roaming a research site provide welcome companionship. But they can also pose a direct threat to scientific projects (see ‘Suffering and troubled’).

Wild rovers

The number of free-roaming ‘street dogs’ is probably 300 million globally, says Andrew Rowan, chief scientific officer of the Humane Society of the United States, based in Washington DC. Studies of ‘street cat’ numbers are limited, but Rowan’s “rough estimate” of the worldwide cat total is 700 million; This includes cats that live in community settings and are claimed by humans.

Inevitably, some of these street animals are hurt or sick, prompting some scientists to intervene or even adopt one. Yet helping a victim in the field is not always easy. Time is often limited, and a step that would be simple at home, such as taking an injured animal to the vet, can be difficult in an area where such services are rare.

But social media – which provides easy access to information and resources – and a growing global network of voluntary groups have paved the way for scientists who are troubled by the plight of animals in need.

The lives of free-roaming animals – and local attitudes towards them – vary greatly. In some parts of the Caribbean, street dogs are well-nourished and treated with love, says ecologist Ryan Boyko, who heads canine DNA-testing company Embark Veterinary in Austin, Texas, and DNA samples have been taken from street dogs in about 40 countries. But in other places, such as parts of Africa, street dogs are emaciated, full of open wounds and covered with parasites.

The dog that eventually found a home with Hitchcock was, by comparison, in good health. He was neither injured nor sick even though he was thin and chubby. His sudden appearance at an excavation site in a remote national park led Hitchcock to suspect that someone had left him to fend for himself.

Whenever possible, scientists who want to help such animals should first try to contact local groups, says Meredith Ayan, executive director of the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals International in New York City. Facebook is a good resource for finding local rescue groups. Community members are more likely to learn which animals that appear to be strays are actually attached to a household and do not require feeding or care. Animal organizations with an international presence and veterinarians may also be able to help.

Many animal-welfare groups recommend caution for field scientists when it comes to feeding animals. Representatives of the group say indiscriminate handouts can create friction with the locals and disrupt the daily routine of the animals.

“Once you’re gone, these animals never have food again,” says Joy Lee, who was based in Ahmedabad, India, until late 2017, where she worked for Humane Society International, an organization that There is an animal-protection organization active around. world.

pet plight

That fate was what Hitchcock feared for Fred and the other dog that accompanied him. “People were turning them into pets,” she says. “I thought, ‘In three weeks we’re leaving and they’re just going to leave again.’ It did not appear that Fred and his canine companion Phi belonged to the nearest village, which was five to ten kilometers away.

Furthermore, Fred was timid, while the local sheepdog was so aggressive that, for his own safety, Hitchcock was afraid to approach the shepherds to inquire. Concerned about Fred and Fi’s future, she and the others start working to find them a home.

An archaeologist friend helped Hitchcock contact a local professor of veterinary medicine, who vaccinated and medicates the dogs. An Israeli scientist working on the site used the messaging app WhatsApp to find the adoptive family.