by Larry Smith
A recent spate of animal stories has unexpectedly highlighted the bad governance issues that are harming our country.
First we had the demise of a certain number of the celebrated ‘swimming pigs’ of Big Major Cay in the Exumas.
Despite the various fanciful origin theories offered on Wikipedia, these pigs were actually put on the cay by a Staniel Cay family following hurricanes in the 1990s. And there is a constant ‘turnover' that no-one talks about.
Since there is very little forage or fresh water on the cay for a passel of hogs (as such a grouping is known), the animals began to hang out on the beach begging food from passing boaters.
And in recent years, the stranded pigs have become a huge tourist attraction, with excursion boats from Nassau and the Exumas charging as much as $400 per head for a day trip. Tour operators have even taken to re-stocking the island with piglets from time to time.
Photos and video of pigs swimming up to boaters in the crystal clear Bahamian sea framed by a white sand beach turn up on social media frequently, and have been featured on news shows and in newspapers across Europe and North America.
It’s good publicity - something the Bahamas rarely gets these days. So when tales surfaced in late February that seven of the 22 swimming pigs had been found dead, there was an immediate uproar.
In fact, the mysterious “wave of death” was reported in the Washington Post, the Daily Mail and National Geographic, among other international media. Most of the early stories suggested the pigs had been poisoned by tourists giving them alcohol.
But as one observer put it: “You would run out of booze long before you could kill seven 500-pound hogs with alcohol on the same day.”
Soon afterwards Agriculture Minister Alfred Gray reported that an official autopsy had found “sand” in the dead pigs stomachs.
“The report is in place. I have not had the chance to digest the total contents of it, but I am satisfied that the pigs died from ingestion of sand material,” Gray said.
He also suggested that visitors to the island should be regulated. And he promised to release the government’s veterinary investigation in due course. That was on March 7 by the way.
At about the same time that Gray was pledging transparency, the local press began reporting that livestock producers on New Providence had lost hundreds of hogs due to tainted feed supplied by the government.
“The Gladstone Road Agricultural Centre had a bad batch of feed,” one farmer told the Tribune. “They left the feed on the dock too long and the corn spoiled. That stuff has a shelf life.”
And it was confirmed that boaters often brought commercial feed from Nassau for the pigs. Although Gray was quick to discount this, he said the government-subsidised feed would be tested and the results made public.
Naturally, nothing more was heard about that, but not long after the tainted feed accusation, Gray added more confusion by speculating that the New Providence pigs may have died from “an airborne disease”.
There was no attempt, however, either to recall toxic feed or to advise the public about the risk of consuming diseased meat. No official reports or conclusions were ever made public on any of these concerns. It was just a matter of Gray moving his lips.
As one observer told me: “Government officials refuse to answer or say anything about this issue, but it appears that Exuma was just the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds of pigs have died on New Providence and who knows where else. And livestock producers have said they died after eating government-supplied feed.”
In early March Brazilian police accused some of the country’s biggest meat producers of bribing health inspectors to turn a blind eye to selling rotten beef and overusing potentially harmful additives in their products.
Brazil is one of the world’s biggest meat producers, with some 5,000 plants exporting $13 billion worth of corned beef and other processed meats. In fact, the cattle sector in Brazil is the largest single driver of deforestation in the world.
The investigation led the Bahamas and other countries to suspend imports of Brazilian meat products. But the practice of selling rotten meat has been ongoing for years, reports say, and there has been no official clarification of what brands are involved.
In the Bahamas, there have been no official recalls of existing product (such as took place in some regional countries like Jamaica). All we know for sure is that all of the corned beef sold here comes from Brazil - and Bahamians eat a lot of corned beef.
Gray’s ministry was responsible for the ban. And he asked importers and consumers to dispose of any product that had already entered the food distribution system here, without offering any clarification.
As an aside, the government legislated a Bureau of Standards and Quality years ago, ostensibly to deal with issues like this. But it was never properly funded, and it is unclear today whether it functions at all. The bureau’s chief - Dr Renae Ferguson-Bufford - did not reply to my inquiries.
Another surrey horse collapsed on Bay Street recently and there were the usual outcries from those concerned about animal abuse, regulatory failure, and the harm such incidents can do to our tourist industry.
As Bahamas Humane Society President Kim Aranha put it: “Nothing to do with animals or nature appears to be held sacred. We rape and destroy the resources we have (and) the pleas of those who care are met with silence.”
There are reportedly 28 surrey horses on the road managed by five operators, but they are regulated by many different government departments and boards, ranging from the Ministries of Transportation, and Tourism, the Cabs Board, the Royal Bahamas Police Force, the Festival Place administration and others.
A few simple rules are supposed to apply to the handful of carriage drivers who continue to force a living hauling overweight tourists through Nassau’s hot and congested downtown streets.
One is that no more than two adults (and two children) can be carried. Another is that horses must have two or three hours rest time during the hottest part of the day. And the horses must be properly fed and watered. The poor condition of the carriages themselves (which also collapse from time to time) is another perennial issue.
In 2014, Transport Minister Glenys Hanna-Martin said reforming the horse and carriage service was long overdue. She pointed to the high volume of negative commentary the service has attracted both nationally and internationally.
Plans and strategies to address the most vexing issues of animal husbandry, routing, and carriage maintenance were mentioned, but - as with most things - little has changed. Emaciated horses continue to pull overloaded carriages in the unrelenting heat and traffic.
Aranha told me that more procedures are in place - such as regular vet checks - and there has been some improvement in the condition of the horses.
“But we had to fight for months to get water troughs at the port, which people use as urinals and to wash cars. The horses are certainly not fed during the day and they should be,” she said.
Efforts have been made to restrict carriage rides to the western Esplanade, Arawak Cay and Fort Charlotte area without success. Few observers understand the attraction of riding in a dilapidated carriage through Nassau’s congested streets and traffic fumes.
The fact that the handful of operators are allowed to devalue our tourism industry and obstruct our roads on a regular basis is a significant regulatory failure that has been ongoing for years.
Each of these issues is a direct result of poor governance - lack of transparency, incompetence, indifference to regulatory enforcement and a complete disregard for the truth and the public interest.