Fido’s Journey to New York

GEORGETOWN, Cayman Islands – A cat furiously hissed as Denaika Dunkley reached into a beige plastic crate over and over again. With the confidence of a practiced cat wrangler, she eventually grabbed a hold of the malnourished ginger tabby and placed it in a large cage lined with a clean blue towel. The tense cat ignored the bowls of food and water and instead fixated on a black cat that had curiously ambled up to its cage. Unaccustomed to its new surroundings, the ginger cat continued to hiss. This didn’t deter the black cat, which has witnessed many new arrivals.

The snarly ginger tabby is the newest resident at the Cayman Islands Humane Society, the only no-kill animal shelter in Georgetown, the capital of the Cayman Islands. Over the next few months, it will be cleaned and nursed back to health at the shelter alongside more than 80 other cats and dogs.

A black cat checks out a nervous, new arrival to the shelter

Although the Cayman Islands is better known for its beaches and reputation as a tax haven than its concern for animal welfare, the Humane Society is one of six charitable organizations in the British Protectorate focused on rescuing and rehoming mistreated cats and dogs.

The need for these services is high—like the Humane Society, many of these organizations are operating at or over capacity—but, with a small human population of around 60,000 on the islands, it’s difficult to find new homes for rescued pets once they’re back on their paws.

“We get animals in every day,” Saskia Salden, 48, a Humane Society board member, said. “They leave them on the streets.”

So, these animal welfare groups have found a novel solution “off-island.” Every year, hundreds of dogs and cats, are flown from the Cayman Islands to the United States. And, the first port of call for the majority of these soon-to-be pets is New York’s very own JFK International Airport.

According to Salden, the shelter usually sends between 50 to 75 canines and felines to the U.S. every year. This process is made more affordable because of financial support from the government-owned Cayman Airways, she said.

Once the animals arrive in New York, shelters and foster programs from New York State and further afield collect and find new homes for them. Due to a successful neutering policy in New York, Salden says that shelters in the city sometimes can’t meet demand for rescue puppies. So, these New York-based groups let the Humane Society know when they have capacity to bring on Caymanian pooches.

The North Shore Animal League America and Hugs Society, two certified 501(C)3 charitable corporations focused on displaced and homeless animals based in New York State and Oregon respectively, have partnered with the Cayman Islands shelter, according to their websites. The North Shore Animal League was unable to provide comment in time for publication.

Tall, tanned and gregarious, the Humane Society’s Salden is originally Dutch and moved to the Cayman Islands 12 years ago for work. Today, her accent has a distinctly Caribbean twang. She says animal “abuse, neglect and abandonment,” is common on the islands. One reason is its transient population; foreigners often move to the to work for international finance companies and law firms for a few years at a time.

However, when they leave, Salden says, some don’t bring their pets along. Even if people do stay on the island, Caymanian landlords and management of apartment complexes commonly do not allow pets and animals can even be abandoned in intra-island moves.

Pet insurance is also not available on the island. And with only three veterinary clinics in the Cayman Islands (none of which offer payment plans) vet bills can be extremely high if a pet gets sick or injured. As the shelter never turns away animals, Salden said, people often surrender their cats or dogs when they need urgent veterinary attention.

Given the islands’ small population, anyone who is willing and able to afford to adopt a rescue animal probably has already. Salden herself looks after four cats, two bunnies and a dog. (Everyone on the board has at least three pets, she joked). So, the Humane Society really values its stateside partner shelters, Salden said.

Dogs and cats are also flown to individual people’s homes in the U.S. Sometimes, Salden explained, “people come here on vacation and fall in love with one of our dogs.” Increasing numbers of tourists volunteer at the shelter and the handful of permanent staff welcomes help with dog-walking at any time.

The Cayman Islands Humane Society is well known in the islands and is largely funded by private donations. It fundraises at a monthly trivia event at a Georgetown pub and an annual “Furball-Gala.” A well-stocked second-hand bookshop, often with a resident pooch on-hand, is located on the second floor of the Society’s large bright blue and yellow building. It also runs a large thrift shop a minute’s drive away.

The Society has even obtained land to build a new facility and they also hope to bring a vet on staff soon.  Proceeds from both shops and their fundraising activities go towards medical bills for the animals, running costs of the shelter and salaries for a handful of full-time staff. Meanwhile, the donations from islanders keep coming too.

At 2 p.m. on a Friday, Jenna Kourie, 29, walked into the Humane Society’s reception laden with bags of books and clothes. The shelter’s staff sprang into action—she was relieved of her donations and accompanied back to her car to bring in a second load. When asked why she had brought so much to the Humane Society, her reply was simple: “I don’t need it. And they do.”