by Ruth Steinberger
Two human deaths by dog mauling occurred in the U.S. last week. These predictable and preventable tragedies shared a common denominator of race, ethnicity, and poverty; both deaths occurred on Native American reservations, where the well known problem of feral and free roaming dogs has been met for decades largely by a plethora of low volume, unorganized spay/neuter services in the very communities in which high volume, well organized spay/neuter programs are needed most.
On November 17, 2014 I spoke to a group of funders in Phoenix, Arizona on the need for organized spay/neuter programs to serve the vast areas of reservations in which poverty makes animal welfare a low priority.
On that day I cited Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the scene of the second fatality, as an example of a tragic situation in which animal welfare organizations visit annually, but provide too few spays and neuters to impact the number of unwanted dogs, so canine population control is accomplished by tribal officers through collection and shooting campaigns. Animals suffer, residents are traumatized and the saga starts over each year.
Spay/neuter & killing programs side-by-side
Yes, spay/neuter programs and collection and killing programs exist nearly side by side, and no one seems to feel compelled to do whatever is needed to change the paradigm. High volume spay/neuter programs are the only hope.
Tragedy on reservations is accepted as an everyday occurrence. Indeed some adult Lakota men have a life expectancy as low as age 49. Last week however, the disparities loomed larger than usual, leaving a little girl who was sledding near her home dead, an adult dead on a reservation in Wyoming, and too few questioning how and why this happened.
Funds are donated to help animals in chronic poverty, trained staff are able to provide the services that are needed to meet the problem of excess dogs in Indian country head on, and some non-surgical options that could have made the services easier and less cumbersome have been ignored for decades. It is time to engage all of the resources, reach out to tribes preventively, and get the job done.
Symptom of something much deeper
This crisis evolved alongside many others in Indian country, following centuries of aggression against tribal people that left all tribes in North America damaged and some gone completely. The tragedy of overpopulation of dogs on reservations is well known; it is a symptom of something much deeper. The failure of the animal welfare movement to reach out with effective programs is symptomatic of how many things “get this bad” in underprivileged communities.
During the several centuries in which European immigrants came to occupy most of the modern day U.S., a dog or horse in the company of indigenous people generally fared far better than a dog or horse in Europe or among settlers of European descent.
The European invasion of the American west included efforts to exterminate native people by killing their local food sources, forced removals, and isolating their children. Starting in the 1890s native children from across the continent were removed from their families to be forcibly “civilized” in boarding schools run by the federal government and by the Catholic and Mormon churches. Childhoods ended abruptly, many brutally. In boarding schools, children were commonly beaten for speaking in their native language or for uttering traditional prayers. Whippings, flogging, and isolation were not uncommon. Traditional religious ceremonies were outlawed on the reservations.
Following years of separation, children returned to find traditional lifestyles gone, elders in despair and some children were unable to speak the same language as their parents. At least one quarter had been sexually abused and at all 33 sites of former boarding schools, graveyards inter the remains of the thousands of native children who did not survive. This gruesome era did not end until John Kennedy’s presidency. The right to enjoy religious freedoms was not fully restored to Native Americans until congressional passage of American Indian Religious Freedom Act in 1978.
Child, animal, & family welfare
Predictably, in the wake of untold despair and deeply disrupted communities, the welfare of children, animals, and families disintegrated. Now, just a few generations after families and tribal communities were assaulted to the core, the infrastructure of many tribal nations remains fragile. Bringing a small spay/neuter program isn’t changing the paradigm for dogs, and isn’t respecting the depth of the issues that reservations face.
Hopefully this raises the flags of racism and economic injustice.
In 2002 I was contacted by the health administration of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe (Sicangu Lakota) of south central South Dakota for assistance in developing a high volume spay/neuter program for the reservation. The administrator noted that a low volume program that had visited for the previous five years did not have enough impact without another program to augment it. The tribe’s goal was to discontinue dog round-ups and increase public safety (bite reduction).
The previous clinics provided around 200 surgeries annually. Our assessment revealed that eight hundred to one thousand surgeries were needed for the initial clinic. Transportation for animals from remote communities was also needed. Ultimately it became clear that preventing the first estrus cycles of the year was the only way to get ahead. Three clinics, starting in April, became the norm. We called it “targeted timing.”
Fearing animals were being removed for killing, during the first few years a few children clung to their pets. One young boy grabbed onto the bumper of the truck. Another told me his cat’s amazing attributes because he felt the need to beg for her life. No child should be forced to beg for their pets’ life; we can help heal the tragedies.
Time for planning & foresight
It is time for high volume spay/neuter programs in Indian country to be a priority. It is time to create programs that are based on sincere cooperation with tribal agencies, and that reflect accurate assessments of need, short and long term goals, and that engage new and cost effective technologies, including intratesticular injections of calcium chloride to eliminate male canine surgeries at half the cost of a piece of suture.
Volunteers going to reservations during vacation time definitely help individual animals, but their services must be coordinated with others in order to maximize effectiveness. We can stop the suffering only if spay/neuter programs in Indian country are afforded the same quality of planning and forethought as would be engaged elsewhere.