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Friday, May 26, 2017

The Animal Care Center of St. John, USVI

Making a Big Difference on a Tiny Island

The Animal Care Center of St. John. Photo by Carrie Dow

My husband and I have been traveling to the tiny island of St. John for over ten years and have come to know this little slice of Caribbean paradise intimately. After several visits we are proud to say we hold many island people and places close to our hearts. One of those places is the island’s only animal shelter, the Animal Care Center of St. John (ACC).

We first made our acquaintance with the animal shelter in 2010. It is a tiny building located in the main port town of Cruz Bay on Southside Road near the Sprauve Museum and Library, next to St. John Head Start. It is within walking distance of the ferry dock and all the cozy tourist trappings that Cruz Bay has to offer. Only by walking uphill into town will you find it. We searched it out because we support animal shelters at home so it only made sense to support the shelter in our favorite vacation spot.

Happy dogs on a trail walk. Photo by Carrie Dow
We met with then Operations Manager Diana Ripley. The shelter had just come out of a period of financial difficulty and the people in the organization were working hard to keep up the care of the animals and the shelter’s community programs with a bare bones budget. Despite its popularity with island residents who support the shelter both financially and by volunteering, budgets can be more difficult on an island.

At the time Ripley told me one of the obstacles facing the shelter was the high cost of veterinary care and even finding veterinarians at all. Throughout the early decades of the shelter (it formed in the 1960s), the local veterinary clinic could not always afford its own costs and would shut down. Doctors would come and go. At the time we met Ripley, the Great Recession was affecting the island’s only vet clinic and the vet was forced to charge the shelter regular rates. Here on the mainland, many shelters are charged discounted rates for routine visits and spay and neuter surgeries or receive medications for cost. In the past, when the island vet had to close up shop, the shelter was forced to send animals to St. Thomas for veterinary care, which adds time and transportation costs to the bill. Fortunately, the current island vet has been there for 14 years.

Volunteers play an important role at the shelter.
Here they are getting ready for a dog walk. Photo by Carrie Dow
Despite the recent financial woes, Ripley and her staff were positive things would turn around. One thing the shelter has always been able to count on is visiting volunteers. This program was most evident in the popular Sunday Morning Trail Hikes. On our visit in 2012, we took one of these hikes. The hike began at 8:30 AM at the shelter. Volunteers from on island and visitors, including entire families, arrived to walk the shelter dogs. A local volunteer ran the program and she helped pair hikers with the best dog for their age. The hike was on the scenic Lind Point Trail in Cruz Bay. The Lind Point Trail begins at a set of wooden steps behind the large yellow National Park Visitors building. Poop bags were provided by the shelter. The hike was not very long, but went up and down hill providing a nice challenge for dogs and humans alike. The walk stopped at the Lind Point Overlook with gorgeous views of Cruz Bay. The cover photo for this blog was taken on this walk. My dog’s name was Brutus and he was adopted by a family in Massachusetts shortly after our visit.  Unfortunately the volunteer that coordinated trail hikes moved away and the shelter has been unable to find a replacement. Daily walks are usually at 8 AM and at 3 PM, and run a half mile loop around the shelter’s block.

Donkeys roam freely on the island. Photo by Carrie Dow
Something else that makes St. John unique is its population of wild donkeys that roam the island freely. The pack animals are descendants of domestic donkeys brought during colonial times to work in the sugar mills. When the mills stopped running they were either released or escaped. They tend to roam in groups of three to five, however, a large population has taken up residence on the North Shore beaches. Tourists often take photos of and with the donkeys and for the most part, they are harmless. However, the USVI tourism board says the donkeys should not be harassed or bothered because they can kick. You don’t want to be on the receiving end of that. Guests should also be aware that residents of the Virgin Islands drive on the left side of the road, something remaining from when the Dutch ruled, and because donkeys like to eat the grass next to the roads, incidents between donkeys and cars are common. If you drive during your stay, do so with caution and keep to the speed limit.
Most donkeys are friendly, but approach with caution.
Photo by Carrie Dow

Because this is a small island with finite people and resources, the shelter has to handle things differently than a shelter in the states might. That is reflected in the ACC’s Feral Cat Trap/Neuter/Release Program (commonly called TNR). Cats are allowed to roam freely on the island, but receive regular food and medical care to control the population and keep diseases from spreading. Each Tuesday evening traps are set for collecting feral cats. On Wednesdays these cats are taken to the local veterinarian for health checks and then spay and neuter procedures. The altered cats have an ear clipped to mark that they have been neutered and then released where they were found. There are also several ACC feeding stations across the island staffed by volunteers who put food and water in the stations. This keeps the cats from foraging in people’s trash and getting into fights with other cats and animals. In 2011 the ACC was awarded a two-year PetSmart grant to assist with the TNR program and 700 cats were altered during this period.

Cat feeding station, one of many on the island.
Photo by Carrie Dow
Like shelters on the mainland, the ACC shelters and fosters animals until they can find permanent homes. However, many of their charges end up finding homes on the mainland because there aren’t enough people on the island. St. John’s population is less than 4,000 and even fewer live on island full time. To help these animals find homes and because St. John is a US Territory, the ACC makes it easy for visitors to adopt. They are given shots and health certificates for traveling and some airlines allow small pets to travel in the cabin for a low fee. The current shelter manager is Ryan and he would be thrilled to show any visitors adoptable animals and help get animals to mainland locations. Visitors can also see adoptable dogs at various adoption clinics in Cruz Bay either at The Marketplace or Mongoose Junction.

The ACC welcomes volunteers of all ages (restrictions can apply) to help out at the shelter. ACC information is placed in all guests welcome packets with rental villas and resorts. Visitors are invited to take a tour of the shelter, walk the dogs, socialize with the cats, clean kennels or fill whatever need the shelter has at the time. On our visits we often bring a bag of supplies like poop bags, litter box scoops and collars and take dogs on a walk. It is the least we can do for an island that has given us so many wonderful memories over the years.

Although small in size, the Animal Care Center of St. John is mighty in the caring of its staff and volunteers. The ACC conducts three major fundraisers each year beginning with Wagapalooza in May. Photos of the most recent Wagapalooza, which raised over $19,000, can be seen on the shelter’s Facebook page. There is a “No Fleas Please” Flea Market in October and a holiday gala event in December. To learn more about the shelter’s programs, visit the shelter’s website. To learn about upcoming events, see adoptable dogs and cats, or just to see what new at the shelter, follow on Facebook.
Brutus takes in the view after our trail hike. Photo by Carrie Dow

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