Loose dogs are a common sight on Arizona's reservations. A few are owned;
others are abandoned. Reliable estimates are hard to establish, but the
stray population is at least 200,000 and probably higher. Bone-thin hounds,
some ravaged by mange, fleas or other parasites, struggle through
blistering summers in the desert region and frigid winters in the
With hunger gnawing at their empty bellies, they poke through garbage cans
for scraps of food. They drink from dirty puddles. The dearth of human
companionship leaves them frightened and alone. As domestication fades,
dogs form packs to stay alive - often with disastrous results.
Al Aginagua, division manager of field enforcement for Maricopa County
Animal Care and Control said: "Stray dogs can harm people and other
animals, including livestock. They cause car accidents where people are
injured, sometimes killed. Mostly it's dogs and cats that are the victims
of accidents and sometimes cruel jokes." Roads in and around reservations
are littered with bodies of dead dogs. Unless they are neutered, dogs and
cats reproduce ... and the cycle continues.
Lack of animal control on reservations exacerbates pet overpopulation. Of
the 20 tribes in Arizona, fewer than half utilize animal control
departments, and their size varies greatly. For example, the Colorado River
Indian Tribes employ eight animal control officers for an approximately
300,000-acre reservation. In contrast, the Ft. Mojave Indian Tribe has only
one animal control officer for an equally large reservation. Some tribes
without animal control departments, such as the Salt River Pima, use the
tribal police to pick up strays and transport them to the county animal
Most tribes agree that the stray dog population is a significant issue.
Some tribes, such as the Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation, have leash laws but
they are not routinely enforced; others, such as the Gila River Indian
Community, try to educate residents about the problems posed by dogs at
large. Adolpho Robles, senior animal control officer, said his efforts have
met with mixed results. "Some residents understand the need to keep their
dogs confined on their property, while others are less cooperative," he
said. "But our officers are out there every day doing community work. It's
a difficult, but a worthwhile, job."
Most strays captured on reservations are euthanized because residents do
not reclaim them; dogs generally do not wear identification tags, and are
largely unadoptable due to poor health or temperament problems. The Navajo
Nation maintains a network of shelters, but most of the animals are
ultimately euthanized. The Ft. McDowell Yavapai Nation animal control
department does not euthanize: the animals they capture are brought to the
county shelter. If not adopted, the shelter euthanizes them.
Pet overpopulation and animal cruelty, however, are not confined to
reservations. They are national problems spread across racial, social and
economic lines. According to the Humane Society of the United States, an
advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., at least 6-8 million largely
adoptable dogs and cats are euthanized every year in this country. At least
25 percent are purebred. Why so many? Relocation, lack of interest,
behavior problems such as chewing and barking, and the birth of a child are
among the most common reasons dogs and cats are surrendered to animal
shelters. Despite aggressive spay/neuter programs and humane education
programs, very few unwanted dogs or cats in shelters, regardless of their
young age or excellent behavior, find new homes.
Animal control limitations span the country, too. According to John Mays of
the National Animal Control Association in Kansas City, Mo., "Animal
control programs are low on the fiscal ladder." Although some reservations
have no animal control programs and others offer bare-bones services, major
American cities face critical shortfalls. New York City, with a population
exceeding 8 million, operates seven animal control trucks on any given
weekday. In comparison, Maricopa County, with a population of around three
million, has 10.
Pet overpopulation on Arizona's reservations is largely influenced by
grinding poverty. According to the 2000 Census, almost half the families in
some tribes live at or below the federal poverty level. Some lack indoor
plumbing, kitchen facilities, automobiles and telephone service. Add in
alcoholism, drug abuse, substandard housing, health issues, and chronic
unemployment and the result is a burgeoning population of unwanted dogs and
Cultural beliefs also play a role in pet overpopulation on reservations. In
prior years, when many American Indians farmed, dogs herded livestock and
cats controlled the mouse population. Dogs and cats were not brought
indoors nor were they spayed or neutered. Free roaming dogs and cats were
Change is already evident and the future holds promise.
The International Fund for Animal Welfare, headquartered in Hyannis, Mass.,
has an ongoing project on the Navajo Nation involving spaying and neutering
as well as humane education. "We've been involved with the Navajos since
1998," said Karen Santos, animal project manager. "We teach people,
especially children, about animal wellness and responsible pet care. Our
program has been well received and we hope to continue it."
Second Chance, an animal shelter in Flagstaff, Ariz., launched the Puppy
Program with the Navajo Nation where they take 6- to 8-week-old puppies
from the reservation and place them for adoption. Second Chance also runs a
humane education program for Navajo children and a mobile spay and neuter
clinic, stated Executive Assistant Sue Mattson. Both programs are popular.
Shelters and rescue groups from as far away as Utah, Colorado and New
Mexico take unwanted dogs from reservations and place them for adoption.
For the past eight years, Dr. Eric Davis, director of Rural Area Veterinary
Services, sponsored by the Humane Society of the United States, has
performed hundreds of spay and neuter operations on at least three Arizona
reservations. Davis said: "Our clinics are always busy. We expect to
continue serving Arizona reservations."
The Ft. Mojave Indian Tribe takes unwanted animals - mostly dogs - to a
local Wal-Mart on weekends for private adoptions. According to Chawdae
Cuneo, animal control officer, their euthanasia rate is relatively low. Ft.
Mojave operates its own small animal shelter.
What else can be done?
To seriously contend with pet overpopulation, reservations must introduce
or expand spay and neuter programs. Tribes that operate casinos can
subsidize special spay and neuter events to make the operation affordable
to low-income residents. National funding sources, such as SPAY USA, that
should be tapped. Vaccination clinics are also needed to prevent the spread
of contagious diseases such as rabies, parvo and distemper. The sale of dog
licenses can help fund animal control.
Food banks can be set up to help struggling families feed their pets.
Consult the local animal shelter, food store or major retailer to organize
one. Humane education and animal wellness programs teach the importance of
respect and kindness towards all living creatures. To start a humane
education program, contact the local animal shelter, the ASPCA in New York
City, or the Humane Society of the United States in Washington, D.C.
Animals deserve kindness and compassion, on and off the reservation. There
is no shortage of help to improve the quality of life for animals living
among Arizona's American Indians. That is a sign of success of which both
the tribes and the shelters and rescue groups can be proud.
Debra J. White is a former social worker who volunteers for Maricopa County
Animal Care and Control. She is also a pet therapist and visits homeless
children with one of her adopted dogs. She is a freelance writer and the
author of "Nobody's Pets" (www.4-footedfriends.com), a novel about humane
Dina Huntinghorse is a Wichita jeweler who grew up in Oklahoma. She
recently filmed "Rez Dogs," about reservation animals, which is currently
in the editing stage. One day, she hopes to raise enough money to build a
shelter for reservation animals. Dina can be reached on her Web site: