Pit bull proliferation––and dog attack fatality rate 100 times that of the U.S. as a whole
FORT DEFIANCE, Navajo Nation–– “They hid the dogs that attacked and killed my daughter from animal control” Marissa “Ris” Rose Jones posted to Facebook.
“What is wrong with these people?” Jones helplessly asked.
Jones’ daughter, Lyssa Rose Upshaw, on May 16, 2021 “asked if she had time to go for a walk on the jogging trail over a hill from the family’s home in Fort Defiance,” wrote recently retired Navajo Times reporter Cindy Yurth, who doubles as president of the Black Hat Humane Society in Durango, Colorado.
“Be back by 5:30”
Jones told her daughter, “Okay, but be back by 5:30.”
At 5:45 Jones “sent her son out to look for Lyssa,” Yurth continued. “When there was still no sign [of Lyssa] by 6:00, Jones enlisted her sister and cousins, all of whom live nearby, to join in the search.”
Lyssa Rose Upshaw’s mangled remains were found below a hill where, Jones told Yurth, “This family has a bunch of mean dogs, about 20.”
Jones and her sister were themselves attacked by the dogs as they descended the hill. Jones suffered a bite to her arm.
They found Lyssa “curled up in a fetal position, her clothes and pieces of flesh scattered around,” Yurth recounted.
“She was gone.”
“Her legs were all chewed up. She was gone,” Jones said.
Responding Navajo Nation police were also menaced by the dogs, Jones added.
“Animal Control was called,” Yurth explained, “but by the time they came, the family had hidden the dogs. Eventually 12 dogs were found in a locked building on the property and taken into custody as evidence,” Jones told her.
“According to Jones,” Yurth added, “the dogs have bitten or snapped at many people, once cornering her niece against a rock until the owners happened to come by and call them off.”
“Fort Defiance Animal Control officers said they couldn’t confirm that or comment on the case,” Yurth finished, “and the criminal investigator assigned to the case didn’t return a phone call.”
Near animal control headquarters
Both the Navajo Nation Animal Control office and the one Navajo Nation Animal Shelter still in operation all but overlook where Lyssa Rose Upshaw was torn apart alive, and are within easy walking distance.
Yurth, whose Black Hat Humane Society vigorously promotes pit bull adoptions, offered no mention of the breed or breeds of the dogs involved in the fifth fatal dog attack on the Navajo Nation since 2010.
Jones furnished a hint, though.
“They need to go from house to house and see how many dogs people have,” Jones told Yurth. “When I was in Navajo Housing Authority housing, I just had one pit bull and they made me get rid of it. But when you live off by yourself, people have seven, 10, 12 dogs and nobody says anything.”
Pandemic killed already weak enforcement
On paper, Navajo Nation residents may keep up to four dogs.
The Navajo Housing Authority allows residents to keep two dogs.
The Navajo Nation Housing Authority at one time enforced a rule against keeping aggressive dog breeds, listed as but not limited to, Alaskan malamutes, Australian cattle dogs, boxers, chow chows, Doberman pinschers, Presa Canarios, pit bulls, Rottweilers and German shepherds.
None of those rules are enforced now, though. And all of the nonprofit dog rescue organizations operating on or near the Navajo Nation appear, like the Black Hat Humane Society, to promote pit bull adoptions.
Navajo Nation animal control services, never strong, were among the economic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic, which killed 1,300 of the estimated 168,000 human residents and caused 30,000 clinically confirmed cases. No part of the U.S. was hit harder.
Territory larger than West Virginia
But with 40% of the Navajo Nation households living below the official U.S. poverty line, resources to deal with the pandemic were scarce.
The Navajo Nation animal control shelters in Tuba City and Many Farms, Arizona, and in Shiprock, New Mexico all were closed, leaving only the Fort Defiance shelter open.
Just two animal control officers were left, during most of 2020, to cover a territory larger than West Virginia, sprawling over parts of northeastern Arizona, southeastern Utah, and northwestern New Mexico, bordering Colorado.
The two officers picked up about 7,000 dogs who were running at large in 2020, markedly fewer than the usual Navajo Nation Animal Control intake of 20,000 to 30,000 dogs.
Pandemic killed spay/neuter outreach too
The Navajo Nation Animal Control staff is reportedly now back up to six officers. The Navajo Nation Veterinary Program, mobile spay/neuter clinic, out of service for more than a year, is reportedly back on the road, with two veterinarians on staff.
But much hard-earned progress was lost in the interim.
Navajo Nation Animal Control manager Kevin Gleason in April 2021 guesstimated to Vida Volkert of Associated Press that the reservation dog population is back up to about 250,000.
Nearly 30 years of effort, initiated by Denver veterinarian Jeff Young in an old school bus he retrofitted into a mobile clinic, had gradually reduced the dog population from as many as 445,000 at peak circa 1990 to about 160,000 when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
3,000 attacks & bites per year
Acknowledges the Navajo Nation Animal Control web site, “The Navajo Nation currently lacks an effective animal control program and adequate animal shelters. Because of this, we are unable to provide services in a variety of areas such as: aggressive enforcement of laws, vaccinations, livestock damage investigations, animal bite investigations, quarantines, adoptions, pick-up of stray/unwanted animals, dead animal disposal, and assisting with spay/neuter clinics.
“As a result, over 3,000 individuals are treated each year at hospitals and clinics for animal attacks and bites. The majority of victims are children and elderly. Some of these victims are transported to other hospitals for special treatment.”
Lyssa Rose Upshaw was the fifth human dog attack fatality on the Navajo Nation since 2010, only one of which is known to have been witnessed.
Three-year-old killed in 2016
That was the July 14, 2016 mauling death of three-year-old Kayden Colter Begay in Seba Dalkai, Arizona, a remote crossroads consisting of little more than a school and post office, with just 136 human residents.
Kayden Begay was killed by 12 pit bulls reportedly belonging to neighbor Marlinda Begay, identified by Cindy Yurth as “a relation on Kayden’s father’s side.”
Wrote Yurth, “Kimasha Begay of Gallup said her son (the victim) was visiting his paternal grandparents. Kimasha Begay said she was told the left side of Kayden’s face had been torn off and his thigh was gnawed to the bone. According to Kimasha Begay, people in the area had repeatedly complained to the Navajo Nation Rangers about the pack of dogs attacking livestock, but nothing was ever done.”
After the attack, Kimasha Begay said, “They destroyed some of the dogs, but I don’t think they got all of them.”
2010, 2011, & 2015 victims
The Navajo Nation Criminal Investigations Office reportedly looked into the incident, but did not file charges. No charges were filed in connection with any of the other Navajo Nation dog attack fatalities, either, because the dogs were never officially identified.
Jason White Hip, 39, of Crow Nation, Montana, the most recent fatality before Kayden Begay, was found dead on January 2, 2015, shortly before he was expected to take a bus back to Montana after an extended visit to Navajo Nation relatives.
“According to a Gallup Police incident report, a woman called for help after she noticed White Hip lying near some bushes with blood on his face,” Associated Press recounted. “The woman reported seeing several dogs in the area, and said that two brown dogs and one black dog growled at her.”
White Hip, a firefighter, is believed to have fought off the dogs, only to die from the combination of his injuries and exposure.
Larry Armstrong, 55, and Tomas Jay Henio, 8, were killed in similar unwitnessed attacks by free-roaming dog packs in 2010 and 2012, respectively.
“What will it take?”
Another Navajo Nation victim, Josiah Teller, of Upper Fruitland, reportedly survived a May 2014 pit bull attack that nicked the carotid artery in his neck when a 10-year-old girl used both hands to pry the dog’s jaws open.
“What will it take for the Navajo Nation to begin protecting its residents from loose, violent dogs?” asked Teller’s mother, Wanona Theberge.
The Navajo Nation has occasionally cracked down on free-roaming dogs, for instance in January 2009, after a man and a woman, both in their sixties, were attacked by packs of seven and four dogs, respectively, in unrelated incidents.
But that crackdown appears to have lost momentum after both People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Humane Society of the U.S. amplified local protest over the June 2009 shooting of 40 to 50 dogs allegedly owned by a man who had been in jail for a month for gun law violations.
Navajo dogs were historically no threat
Historically, free-roaming dogs were not considered a problem on the Navajo Nation. The reservation dogs were almost all small to midsized mongrels.
The Yellow Dog of Crypt Cave, Nevada, whose mummified remains were interred about 6,300 years ago, was such a dog, as were many others whose less well preserved remains have been discovered by archaeology.
Traditionally, Navajo dogs ran loose, scavenging the refuse from successful hunts, keeping predatory animals away, alerting the small, isolated communities to the approach of human enemies.
Most of all, those dogs were no threat to anyone.
Now, though, the Navajo Nation dog population includes a considerable infusion of pit bull genetics, a legacy in part of drug trafficking on the reservation, and passing through it.
And since 2010 the Navajo Nation has suffered fatal dog attacks at a rate 100 times greater than the U.S. as a whole, even as the rate of fatal dog attacks in the U.S. as a whole has approximately quadrupled from the rate of 1990-2000.