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Putting a Leash on the ‘Rez Dog’ Problem

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Packs of stray dogs, often inflicted with distemper or parvovirus, or infested with mange, roam reservations. Breeding and multiplying, they scavenge for food, sometimes unexpectedly lash out and occasionally freeze to death in winter months on South Dakota’s destitute Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, according to a Lakota community press release.

On the Navajo Reservation in December, malnourished dogs mauled a man – deputies do not know if the dogs attacked and killed him, or if he died before they fed on his body, reported the Navajo Times.

At Nambé Pueblo outside of Santa Fe, New Mexico, in February 2009, Josephine De Vita endured 15 minutes of agony as dogs gnawed her legs, before her husband Tony De Vita and former Nambé Pueblo Gov. Dennis Vigil, whom Tony called to the scene, fended off the ferocious animals. “Her legs looked like hamburger meat,” Vigil told The New Mexican. The Nambé Pueblo tribal government relies on the county to offer animal-control services.

High concentrations of reservation dogs and reports of vicious attacks are nothing new. But tribal members at some reservations are rallying to proactively manage the growing lot and care for the abandoned and neglected dogs.

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Without a single veterinarian on the two-million-acre Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, the Lakota Animal Care Project trains volunteers how to examine animals, administer treatments and give vaccinations. Tribal member Clarence Rowland joined the project when he realized the reservation’s widespread animal disease “could be prevented with a vaccine."

Founded by wildlife ecologist and United Nations biological diversity consultant Virginia Ravndal, the Lakota Animal Care Project empowers members of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe to control the wild dog population and care for the animals. “We have a lot of hairless dogs on the reservation,” Ravndal said. “Seeing the mange treatments working, seeing the dogs grow hair again—people on the reservation have seen the difference, so they have hope."

This optimism, also sparked by new educational programs like Sunka Scouts (Sunka means ‘dog’ in the Lakota language), strongly resonates with the tribe’s youth. “My 11-year-old sister now says she wants to be a vet when she grows up,” Rowland said.

Similar programs exist on the Navajo Reservation, and recent dog-related incidents have lead the community outreach coordinator of the Navajo Nation Veterinary & Livestock Program and the Navajo Nation Puppy Adoption Program, Kendra Wapaha, to speak up.

In a Jan. 6, reader response in the Navajo Times, Wapaha encouraged tribal members to spay and neuter pets, drawing attention to the low-income program offered by the Navajo Nation Veterinary & Livestock Program, which has three clinics on Navajo land. “This rez dog problem has been created by the people residing on the Navajo Nation, not the Navajo Nation government,” Wapaha wrote. “We all have to do our part to correct this overwhelming problem.”