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International Conference Looks at Rosebud Spay/Neuter Program

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe stopped their “dog round-ups” – where stray dogs were collected and killed – 10 years ago, after bringing in a very successful spay/neuter program. In that time, the program has provided more than 7,000 surgeries, and more than 1,500 unwanted dogs and puppies have been transferred to off-reservation adoption facilities. The program and its success was a topic presented by Ruth Steinberger at the First International Conference on Dog Population Management in York, England on September 7th of the four-day conference.

The World Health Organization is the organizer for the conference, and it is intended to address dog populations in impoverished areas worldwide.

The Rosebud Sioux Tribe Health Administration Office first contacted Steinberger, the spay/neuter Program Coordinator and Director of the Oklahoma-based Spay FIRST, in 2002. Steinberger coordinates spay/neuter programs in low-income communities and is an advocate for increased spay/neuter services for communities in chronic poverty.

“The tribe recognized that collecting and killing was not only ineffective, since people replaced the dogs that were killed with new and intact (unspayed) dogs, but it was also deeply traumatic,” Steinberger said. “Unwanted dogs were suffering; they were starving and freezing to death. They were also a serious safety issue; the number of dog bites was over 20 times the national average, and in some communities children could not walk home from school due to packs of stray dogs.”

The tribe passed a resolution stating care of companion animals was a part of their traditional culture and, based on that resolution, spay/neuter was simply a new tool for an old tradition. That resolution was the basis for the invitation that brought Steinberger to the reservation. She said that the impact could be measured by the reduction in bites on the reservation and the letters of support that came from school officials noting that fewer packs meant safer children. The overall condition of the dogs entering the clinics improved in the first two years, and in 2005 calls to grocery stores on the reservation revealed that as the number of dogs on the reservation declined, the sales of dog food had actually increased. “That meant when people can finally afford to care, they usually do,” Steinberger said.

Promotion of the first clinic included having workers go door-to-door to let people know about it. The tribe has continued that kind of promotion with educational outreach and providing transportation to the clinic. “We make sure there is room for everyone who brings a pet; no one is turned away. The number of surgeries is the key to having an impact; if the clinic size is too small you will have no effect. For the first clinic we had enough staff and supplies to provide a thousand surgeries.” Only veterinarians skilled in high volume surgical techniques are employed, though they welcome volunteers who can help in many other areas of the clinic.

In 2005, it was decided that three clinics a year would be more effective than one clinic in the summer. Now clinics are held in April, July and September. “Our targeted timing prevents the greatest number of litters and has the most impact,” Steinberger said.

“The credit for the success lies totally with the tribe. They committed to making a difference, and plugged in the information and resources needed to make this work. The Community Health Rep (CHR) program coordinates the housing, staff, and all support services for the visiting team. The tribe allows trustees from the jail to help with check-in and monitoring the recovery area. The local volunteers have been wonderful.”

Only a few places without animal shelters have addressed unwanted animals through high volume spay/neuter, yet Rosebud, one of the poorest places in the U.S., has proven that spay/neuter can have a huge impact before shelters are built or more costly steps are taken. “Now we can share this road map with others around the world,” Steinberger said.

The program is a high volume M*A*S*H (Mobile Animal Surgical Hospital) clinic. That means the staff brings the equipment and supplies and sets up a clinic in a local building. Mange and parasite treatment are given to every animal, and each one goes home with dog or cat food to eat during the recovery period. Equipment, supplies, and funds have been donated by Summerlee Foundation, Petco Foundation, PetSmart Charities, Marian’s Dream and many other organizations.

Spay FIRST is also funding the research of Dr. Charles Rupprecht, chief of rabies research at the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta, whose team is currently conducting research on a combined rabies/immunocontraceptive vaccine for dogs. If proven effective, it could revolutionize canine population control in remote areas, potentially replacing the M*A*S*H clinics with a vaccine program. This could eliminate collection and killing programs in many parts of the world, including reservations, where staffing and funding make spay/neuter programs difficult to start.

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