I recently flew into Rwanda’s capital city, Kigali, before heading into the Virunga Mountains to see mountain gorillas. You might be concerned about going to this African country: In 1994, 800,000 men, women, and children were massacred here, one of the most horrific atrocities in human history. Today, there are few obvious hints of those awful events.
It turns out that Kigali – a booming metropolis of 11.5 million — is quite safe, compared to U.S. major city standards. And there’s nearly no trash or litter in Kigali; plastic bags are banned.
Dogs and cats are hard to find, too. But there are pets. In the city outskirts and countryside, children use leashes to 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, even loved.
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. As Americans and Europeans influence culture, particularly in a 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 a pet cat, Puss, resides. Puss has a pretty 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 offers up whatever Puss wants, and there are lots of lizards and birds around for variety.
Should Puss become sick or injured, I can’t imagine there’s much veterinary care in the Rwandan countryside. Veterinary care and commercial pet food remain luxuries few can afford.
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, though they most certainly never shared beds with people. But 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 neighborhoods, or even 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 ended, dogs were vilified for this practice. This disgust lingers in Rwandan culture. Thankfully, 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, of all things. 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.
Jeanne Potter, a San Diego 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.”