By Coconut Mutts Contributor: Kaitlin Murphey
American Samoa is not a big tourist destination. Life is not easy on these remote islands, with sporadic supplies, annual cyclones, and an expanding population hemmed in by vast ocean. In conjunction with federal occupation for over a century, Samoans have kept their family-based government more or less intact. Land in American Samoa is 90% family-owned and is non-transferable to non-Samoan blood. This keeps the power in the hands of the matais and protects these relatively conservative islands from becoming the next Spring Break Destination.
When you live on a remote island, you get used to making do. Creative patch jobs are the norm, as is demonstrating enviable patience for delayed shipments and poor weather. The outer islands of Ofu-Olosega and Ta’u are supplied by boat and small planes. The main topic of conversation there consists of when the boats are coming, but people also fish and farm breadfruit, banana, coconut, and pigs for themselves.
Navigating by starlight, the accomplished Lapita seafarers from what we now call New Guinea sailed their oceanic canoes over rolling swells to these islands about 3,000 years ago. With them traveled prized possessions: handsomely crafted tools such as fishing baskets and floor mats, an intricate artistic design sense, and livestock – wild jungle fowl (better known as chickens), pigs, and dogs.
The cultural gifts of these intrepid explorers can still be observed today. Teams of strapping young paddlers practice for races in the harbors each afternoon. Women can be seen drying pandanus leaves in the sun to construct traditional mats for funeral gifts. Elders hike their pant legs up to show youngsters how to catch fish in the shallows with exquisite, onion-shaped baskets. The beautiful, wheeling graphic designs full of environmental and cultural symbolism continue to flourish in the form of sacred tattoos, traditional yet universal wrap-skirts, and even product packaging. Colorful semi-feral roosters and their progeny freely roam highway medians. The squealing of pigs and intoxicating smell of barbecue pervades. And dogs persist in their roles as low-maintenance security systems.
On American Samoa, family is everything. People live in giant single-level houses called fales with several generations all cooking and growing up together. The ubiquitous pickup truck is as practical on washed-out dirt roads as it is for blasting pop music while chauffeuring mom, auntie and all the cousins on folding chairs in the back.
Proud of their valorous contributions to US military engagements, on American Samoa, ‘vet’ stands for veteran, not veterinarian. No department stores contain aisles of miniature sweaters and neon-plush squeaky toys. There are no astro-turfed dog parks full of hobnobbing owners and playful pups. In fact, you might not even see anyone taking their dog for a walk. Many dogs and cats on American Samoa take care of themselves. While these animals may be free to go where they please, life on the streets is never easy. In every corner of the islands, dogs soldier on with infected wounds from violent skirmishes, puppies with immune systems weakened by tick-borne diseases perish in the shadows, and fresh litters of kittens cartwheel behind dumpsters, unaware of the hard knocks ahead.
It’s not a good situation for the animals or humans. Walking down the street becomes an exercise in heightened awareness. Everyone knows to keep a rock in their pocket, or at least pretend to throw one at the gamut of intimidating canines who gallop straight for you unencumbered by leash or fence, exhibiting every intention of ripping your face off. Dog bites account for over half of reported injuries on the islands. Native wildlife are negatively effected, too. The unique island bird species here evolved over eons without any land-based predators, and therefore succumb to feral and outdoor domestic pets at an alarming rate. Many people see their first wild segavao, the tiny crayola-colored Blue-crowned Lorikeet, as it is dropped from the mouth of their feline companion on the back doorstep. On a tiny island with nowhere to escape, this threat has grave consequences for entire avian populations.
If you care about the wellbeing of your furry comrades across the sea, please consider donating to support our efforts in making American Samoa a better place for dogs, cats, wildlife, and people. THANK YOU!
Check out Kaitlin’s further writings and original art about adventures in American Samoa here.