While I was growing up in Byer Village in Montserrat, like most families we had a dog. He was white with a fluffy coat. He was docile and harmless. In fact he rarely barked. One day he escaped his leash and walked about a quarter-mile to one of our neighbors’ homes. That neighbor owned a female dog, and I believe the canines were in heat. During our dog’s uninvited visit he committed the cardinal sin of urinating on the verandah. So the owner shot him . . . three times.
Ironically, our dog’s name was Bullet.
I was devastated by Bullet’s death. But my grandparents, whom I grew up with, didn’t seem overly bothered about it. In my 8-year-old mind I figured perhaps the dog deserved his fate. But as I got older and processed the incident, retroactive anger arose. That incident was a mere microcosm of how we as a country and culture have treated an animal often referred to as “man’s best friend”.
Moving to America at a young age helped me evolve in many respects. I still revere my Montserrat roots and will never renounce the culture I cherish. However America has opened my eyes to some practices in Montserrat that in hindsight were harshly cruel.
Recent visits to Montserrat have left me stunned at the animal abuses that still exist. In 2014 I stayed in a rented home. The neighbor had a small dog that was tied to the side of the house. My bedroom was directly across from the animal. One night it rained on and off for hours, along with lightning and thunder. The sound of that poor dog whimpering throughout the night remains with me to this day.
I saw a lot of animal abuse while growing up and it’s amazing how some of the most brutal acts can become acceptable when deemed the norm. We would toss our dog a few chicken bones during dinner, and I believe in our minds we thought that should be enough to satisfy their appetites. Dogs do like bones, but bones are hardly filling. Many of us have experienced the family cat eating from our dinner plates when we turn our back and how angry we were having to throw the food away. But the animals aren’t doing that because they’re selfish. They’re doing it because they’re hungry. We pay delicate attention to livestock because they can one day yield something in return in the form of food or cash. But I’ve heard men joke about saddling dogs with heavy rocks and drowning them. We seem to think of them as inanimate objects.
Two years ago I visited Montserrat and stayed at the home of a family friend who was off island. He had a brown-and-white dog that was tied to a tree in the front yard. The owner’s niece would stop by each day and feed the animal. But other than that, the dog’s existence consisted of a 10-foot radius. He ate, slept and relieved himself in that space.
Like humans, dogs exhibit body language. I could tell this one was unhappy. So I decided that during my time staying at the home I would grant him a bit of freedom. I took him for a walk one morning. When I began untangling his leash from the tree he seemed a bit confused. But when I began walking him he became animated. Dogs might be domesticated but a part of them remains primal. He sniffed around, relieved himself, panted in delight and ran as far as the leash would allow. At last he felt some semblance of emancipation.
The next morning I walked him again. This time as I untethered his leash from the tree, he licked my hand emphatically. Dogs can’t speak in the conventional way, but he spoke to me that morning: “Thank you so much, thank you for giving me some freedom.”
That same morning I had an extra treat for him. I placed him in my jeep and drove from Brades to Cork Hill. I parked the jeep, then we walked up the hill to Byer, which has been in the uninhabited zone of Montserrat for more than 20 years due to the Soufriere Hills volcano. With no one around I unleashed him. He ran around, chased an agouti, chased a few wild chickens, marked his territory a few times and thoroughly enjoyed his freedom.
Sadly, our morning ritual ended when his owner returned to the island and I went back to the United States. Before leaving I asked the owner if he would take the dog for a walk every now and then. “I don’t have time,” he replied. Why do you have a dog in the first place, I asked. “He’s there to let me know if somebody comes in the yard.”
I thought to myself: “OK, so he’s your security guard. Treat him with a little compassion.”
As I get older, animal abuse bothers me more and more. In fact you will never find a bird cage, aquarium and any other type of animal confinement in my home. I don’t visit the zoo or the circus because I don’t like seeing animals being exploited.
Nigel Harris, owner of Fly Montserrat, has been a controversial figure in Montserrat in recent years for his managerial decisions concerning his airline. But one area in which he deserves credit is being an advocate for better animal treatment. He founded MAPS (Montserrat Animal Protection Society), which shelters stray dogs and cats, tries to get them adopted, and also conducts dog walks each Sunday.
I have tried stressing to friends and family members in Montserrat about treating animals more humanely, but it has been an uphill climb. Some years ago I was speaking to a friend in Montserrat during the trial of Michael Vick, the American football player who was jailed for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring. “Why don’t they leave the man alone,” my friend said with a disgusted tone, accompanied by a strupes.
The fight continues.