The friendly canines that charm many visitors to Rarotonga can have a dog's life, writes Lisa Scott.

Rarotonga has 10,000 people and 4000 dogs. All the woofers want to do is hang out, follow kids and tourists around, have a bit of fun and maybe a spot of luncheon. Dogs are such a part of island life a local "Caution, crossing" road sign features a picture of a man, a woman and a dog. Many have large bodies and short little cabriole legs, thanks to a prolific basset hound who was here in the 1990s.

Either that, or, so the legend goes, one of the Queen's corgis got out during a state visit.
Come to Raro and chances are a dog will adopt you for the duration, but everyone loves a holiday hook-up, don't they?

However, this "anyone and everyone" waggy-tailed philosophy doesn't mean it's all sunshine and coconut bras for the dogs of Raro.

Well-meaning tourists often kidnap owned dogs out of misplaced kindness, and the island's SPCA staff of two, Robyn and Steph, waste valuable time taking them back to where they came from, usually just a couple of doors down. Chasing cars can lose the dogs a leg and any douche bag with a rage problem can subject them to random acts of violence with little fear of prosecution.

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Contradictions abound. This is a place in which safety razors are locked behind glass but where machetes are freely available.

For all that Rarotongans are marvellously warm, church-going folk; they have a queer streak of apathy, verging on cruelty, when it comes to animal welfare.

In a recent example, the fine for near-disembowelling a dog with a machete was $20, if enforced. The dog control officer will shoot even registered, neutered dogs and their bodies will never be seen again. Expats joke darkly that if your dog goes missing, you'd think twice about dining out that night.

The dogs here are 99 per cent not aggressive (pitbulls are not allowed, they are the Voldemorts of Rarotonga) and 98 per cent owned, if loosely. It's impossible to keep an old dog on the porch in Rarotonga - there are no fences.

There's a lot of poisoning; some deliberate, mostly its negligence.

Fish poisoning: the fish in the lagoon are toxic due to agricultural run-off and, unfortunately for them, Rarotongan canines are expert fishers; rat poison; Paraquat containers left about and, of course, over-population.

Steph and Robyn deal with this last by cruising the island, coaxing dogs into their van and taking them off to be desexed.

Waking up later that evening, a bit woozy, they go about their lives as before, with a tattoo on their ear and a sense of something missing - perhaps less likely to get in a strange van.

Robyn and Steph are doing much good here, and go about their Sisyphean task with a smile and a hug for the island dogs who rush up to wuff thanks for the flea treatment, and tears for the ones too sick to save, but they're really up against it.

There's no medicine for arthritis, a problem in Rarotonga because dogs live outside on hard surfaces and swim a lot, meaning they start to develop it from middle age and suffer greatly.

There's not enough flea and worm treatment, no extra dog food to give malnourished animals, and simple things like collars are scarce.

Not to mention, to get anywhere at all they need to change a mindset around the behaviour animals deserve from humans (one New Zealand still struggles with and our SPCA has spent much longer trying); it's a change that will take patience, respect and a lot of time - even longer in dog years.

CHECKLIST
Getting there
Air New Zealand flies daily from Auckland to Rarotonga. One-way Economy Class fares start from $219.

Details
The Cook Islands SPCA can be found on Facebook. Charity organisations such as South Pacific Animal Welfare and the Esther Honey Foundation also help animals in the region.