Use a few dollars to set tails wagging

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

June 12, 2014

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Before the feeding frenzy sets in for the recent $554 million settlement with the feds, may I make a suggestion?

As a volunteer with the Blackhat Humane Society for the past nine years, I have watched the stray dog situation on the Navajo Nation go from incomprehensibly bad to the stuff of nightmares.

By the Navajo Nation's own figures (, some 3,000 people are attacked by dogs on the nation each year. I would guess it's much higher. Every Navajo I have ever talked to about the subject has been bitten by a dog.

A friend of mine had to be rushed to the hospital recently after she saw a neighbor's dog attacking a toddler and intervened. The animal turned on her and chomped down on her arm while she used it to shield her face and throat. She was treated and released but still has trouble lifting and is still in a bandage.

The child was transported by helicopter to Albuquerque where he is still in the hospital.

Animal Control responded -- two days later, after repeated calls and a threat to make a report to the head of Fish and Wildlife (which, for some strange reason, supervises Animal Control).

The dog was taken away, but the officer would not answer my friend's question as to whether it would be destroyed. (Incredibly, the nation's animal control ordinance only requires a dog to be quarantined for 10 days after biting someone, and for the owner to pay for any damages. There's no law that vicious animals must be euthanized.) My friend had called twice before on that particular dog -- once when it chased her while she was jogging and another time when it appeared to be stalking an elder. No one responded either time.

How can this be? Don't look to Animal Control's website for answers. It basically gives you a list of things the program CAN'T do.

"The Navajo Nation currently lacks an effective animal control program and adequate animal shelters," the site's home page reads. 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."

It begs the question, what DOES this program, with its $633,000 budget, do?

There are some good people in the department, who do try to do their jobs in spite of the budget shortfalls. Animal control officers in Shiprock and Many Farms are working with rescue groups to re-home relinquished puppies, and all the officers make occasional rounds for roaming animals. (They seem to get more occasional by the year.) But still there are an estimated 400,000 stray dogs on the reservation, and while certainly it's the small minority that are vicious, they're out there starving and spreading ticks and parvovirus, ruining the experience of soft-hearted tourists who write to our little humane society at the rate of about a dozen letters a year, folded around a check, telling about the things they saw on the Navajo Nation and why they will never come back.

We in the Blackhat Humane Society do what we can. With a budget of about $30,000 in donations and adoption fees, zero paid employees, no shelter, and only our personal vehicles, we manage to save about 400 strays a year, vaccinate and spay or neuter them and find them good homes.

But without a functioning Animal Control Department to work with, we're just falling farther and farther behind. Dogs and cats, unfortunately, breed much faster than foster homes, and the current tribal shelters are basically death camps, even if you can find one that's open.

The Veterinary and Livestock Program is another key to this puzzle. We've had enough interaction with them to know that they're trying. But with just three tribal vet clinics and only one of them manned full-time, they're operating more like triage-oriented MASH units than the friendly, wellness-oriented clinics you find off the rez. In Chinle, it generally takes at least a month to get a spay-neuter appointment.

The new spay-neuter van is a good start, but it needs to be out in the chapters EVERY DAY, and staying in a chapter more than two days, to make a dent in the ridiculous overpopulation of kittens and puppies.

The Colorado-based non-profit Soul Dog Rescue has been a tremendous asset with its spay-neuter clinics that fix 120 to 170 animals in a weekend, but they can't be everywhere, and the chapters need to be better about opening up their facilities to help them do their work.

If the nation can't tackle the dog problem on its own, why oh why does it prohibit the counties from coming in and helping? Every inch of the Navajo Nation is part of one county or another. Yet, in an attempt to exercise sovereignty at the expense of its citizens, the tribe doesn't allow county animal control within its reservation borders.

The counties are doing a good job of controlling their excess animals. You can practically tell where the reservation line ends when you stop seeing dead dogs on the highway.

The counties might want a little money from the tribe for doubling or tripling their animal intake, but it seems like it would be a pittance compared to the top-heavy duplication of efforts we've got going at the moment.

Better yet, contract with one of the humane societies working on the rez to run the animal shelters. Give Blackhat $633,000, and I can guarantee you we'll resolve the stray problem in five years, max, and do it humanely.

I have not heard a single presidential candidate address the issue of roaming animals. I suppose they feel it is insignificant compared to "people" issues. But animal issues ARE people issues.

Dogs that are not treated for ticks can spread those ticks to people, putting them at risk for Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Hungry strays will band together in packs and take down livestock. Tourists who don't come back and tell other people how awful the dog problem is on the rez are likely costing the nation hundreds of thousands in potential revenue.

On a spiritual level, a society that can watch this degree of suffering and turn its back is a society in decline. If the Navajo Nation is serious about preserving its culture, that includes striving for a society in harmony with all living beings.

Most importantly, people like my friend deserve to walk their neighborhoods in peace. Going for a jog should not mean taking your life in your hands.

Please, Council, when you're divvying up the windfall, don't forget the animals. It wouldn't take much to start making a dent. Throw a good dog a bone.

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