Rwandans Love Mountain Gorillas, Now Warming Up to Pets


RWANDA, AFRICA — In September, we flew into the capital city of Kigali before heading out to the Virunga Mountains with Terra Incognita Ecotours to see mountain gorillas. Instantly, it was apparent how much rebuilding and growth has occurred since the Rwandan genocide of 1994, when 800,000 men, women, and children were massacred, one of the most horrific atrocities in human history.

Finding trash or litter in Kigali is a challenge; this booming metropolis of 11.5 million people is incredibly clean. And by any standards, Kigali is safe. Oddly, however, it’s rare to spot any pets. Even feral cats and stray dogs are few and far between.

Instead of dogs on the other end of leashes, there are goats, at least in the countryside. Children take their goats for walks. The animals have names. They have value. And though the goats don’t sleep indoors (happily), they’re well cared for, one might even say, loved.

It turns out that cats have never been a part of Rwandan culture. I asked around, but no one seemed to know why. It’s not that cats are poorly thought of; they just haven’t been considered until recently. As Americans and Europeans influence culture, particularly in the big city like Kigali, there’s an increasing interest in “getting a cat.”

High in the mountains, near the lush forest homes of the mountain gorillas, we stayed at the Virunga Lodge, where Puss the cat lives. Overall, Puss has a darn good life. There’s no shortage of love, food or entertainment. Tourists (like me), missing their own cats, can ask for handouts from the kitchen and snuggle with Puss, who clearly enjoys the attention. Kitchen staff offer up whatever Puss wants, and there are lots of lizards and birds around for variety.

Still, I can’t imagine there’s much veterinary care in the Rwandan countryside should Puss become sick or injured. In many countries, veterinary care and commercial pet food remain luxuries few can afford.

Still there are pets, even in struggling nations. Dogs were once quite popular in Rwanda, even in the poorest areas. They might have roamed from home to home for handouts, and sometimes picked in the trash. They had names and were loved.

So, what happened?

The genocide impacted Rwandans’ views of dogs. As huge numbers of people fled their homes, often leaving the country, they could not take their dogs along. Many dogs were left homeless and without caretakers. Entire villages were sometimes wiped out, leaving dogs behind. With nothing else to eat, the animals either starved or scavenged on what they could find to survive, including human remains. When the genocide finally ended, dogs were vilified for this practice. This disgust lingers in Rwandan culture — at least for now. Thankfully, though, dogs seem to be making a gradual comeback.

I spotted only a few dogs during my stay. When I asked one owner about his mixed-breed pooch, he told me the dog’s name. I’m sure he wondered why a tourist would jump out of his vehicle to talk with him about his dog. The neighbors stared. But instead of quizzing me about my odd interest, he asked if I’d be interested in buying an entire litter of puppies! I declined.

Dr. Jeanne Potter, a San Diego, CA, veterinarian who was part of our Terra Incognita Ecotours group in the area to see the mountain gorillas noted, “It’s really impressive how the culture and society are mending (after the genocide). I think the healing power of pets can help. I won’t be surprised if in time dogs will make a comeback.”

©Steve Dale, Tribune Media Services