Sea lions, endemics go to the dogs

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Sea lions are a part of everyday life on San Cristobal. Wild seals walk on the sidewalk, sleep on every bench in town, run over towels on the beach and have even been known to find their way into the university’s computer lab. Despite their ubiquity on the island, the Galapagos Sea Lion has been listed as an endangered species since 2008. One of the greatest potential threats to the Galapagos Sea Lion is the Canis lupus familiaris–otherwise known as the common domestic dog– and technically speaking, its presence in the Galapagos is illegal.

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A loose seal in the Galapagos Academic Institute of the Arts and Sciences' computer lab
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Sea Lions are always sleeping on benches in the town of Puerto Baquerizo in San Cristobal

Part of the Ecuadorian government’s “Galapagos Special Law” states that there cannot be any cats or dogs on the islands. Walk around for a minute on any of the populated islands and you will see that this law receives very little compliance. Strays and pets are abundant throughout the islands, but they pose a huge threat to endemic species. Cats and dogs have been known to hunt finches and juvenile giant tortoises, and also harbor diseases that threaten many endemic species like the Sea Lion.

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A Galapagos Sea Lion sleeps next to me while I read on the beach Photo credit: Ella Fornari

Canine distemper is a highly contagious virus that effects cats and dogs but can jump to closely related mammals like sea lions. The virus is similar to human measles and can be fatal. Common symptoms of the virus include fevers, vomiting, conjunctivitis, breathing difficulties, anorexia and brain damage. In 2000 more than 10,000 Caspian Seals were recorded to have died from canine distemper. This epidemic of distemper in the Caspian Seal population was most likely caused by seals having contact with infected dogs.

The Charles Darwin Station currently lists the presence of canine distemper on the islands of Santa Cruz, San Cristobal, and Isabella. These three islands are the ones with the greatest populations of humans and thus the greatest numbers of dogs.

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Someone's pet interacts with sea lions on Playa Mann in San Cristobal. It is illegal for dogs to be on the beach, but enforcement is lacking.

There is not currently an epidemic of canine distemper in the Galapagos, but the potential remains high as long as dogs and cats remain on the islands. In 2007 the Galapagos conservancy warned against the possibility of a canine distemper epidemic that would absolutely devastate the population of Galapagos Sea Lions.

In 2008, the eco-terrorism organization Sea Shepard echoed these concerns and called for the removal of all cats and dogs from the islands. Sea Shepard made the case to the Vice President of Ecuador that removing all dogs and cats–including family pets–would be the only way to adhere to the policy as currently outlined by the Galapagos Special Law. But dogs and cats have not been actively removed from the islands, and no plan is currently in the works to do so. Thanks to the work of the Darwin Animal Doctors and other veterinary organizations, however, population growth has been curbed by sterilization initiatives since 2010.

Even though current populations of pets and strays are regularly spayed and neutered, the threat of distemper persists because of a law against vaccinating dogs in the Galapagos. This is problematic given that puppies are regularly smuggled into the islands as pets without proper vaccinations. These puppies are of particular concern, as without vaccination they are likely to bring canine distemper to the islands.

Although a complete removal of cats and dogs seems unlikely, more must be done to keep threats to endemic species like canine distemper at bay. The dog vaccination law should be overturned if the dogs are going to stay on the islands. Other laws, such as those prohibiting dogs on beaches, can also make a difference in making sure canine distemper does not spread. Humans are here to stay, and so are their pets, but ensuring that these pets do not harm endemics should be prioritized before the problem creates a full-on epidemic.