Filling the gap

(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Marlicia Todacheene, 7, from Cedar Ridge holds onto a box that holds her cat named Roger Sunday during a spay/neuter clinic at the Bodaway/Gap Chapter House in Gap, Ariz.

Collaborative project takes aim at pet overpopulation, disease

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

BODAWAY-GAP, Ariz., July 17, 2010

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(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)

Dogs are kept in cages during the visit by the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary in Gap, Ariz.

The problems of pet overpopulation and disease on the Navajo Nation are so enormous that few organizations are even trying to make a dent.

But what if you took it one community at a time?
That is the idea behind the Gap Project, a partnership between Bodaway-Gap Chapter, the Navajo Nation and Best Friends Animal Sanctuary.

The project, now in its second year, provides an annual free spay/neuter/vaccination clinic at the chapter house with volunteer veterinarians and technicians. This year, a volunteer vet and technician came all the way from Ohio to help.

"The idea is to focus on one community, and see what kind of difference we can make," explained Jeff Popowich, animal care operations manager for Best Friends, which is located in Kanab, Utah.

Gap was chosen because it is small and isolated and a good test case, but also because of a personal connection. Lorraine Homer, a Navajo maintenance worker at Best Friends, calls Gap home and commutes back on the weekends.

Homer had already started chipping away at her community's animal problem with the help of Tom Corrigan, president of the Fredonia (Ariz.) Humane Society.

About 10 years ago, Corrigan started rounding up donated bags of dog food and bringing them to Gap, setting up a feeding station for the herd of starving strays that hung out by the town's dump.

If there was room at his organization's shelter, he would bring back puppies for medical care and a chance to be adopted. Those efforts are ongoing, with Fredonia volunteers taking turns making "Gap runs."

Meanwhile, working at one of the premier animal shelters in the country was an eye-opener for Homer. She was learning a lot about properly caring for pets and wanted to bring some of that education home.

She observed that a lot of the strays in Gap weren't really strays, just owned animals that were wandering unattended, mating with feral dogs and sometimes spreading disease.

"Around here, a lot of people don't know anything about spay-neuter or vaccinations," she said. "They think of dogs and cats more as livestock - you feed them and let them roam.

"You should get your dog fixed," she started telling her neighbors.

But it's expensive and the nearest vet was 15 miles down the road in Tuba City.

Homer hooked Corrigan up with her bosses at Best Friends, and together Fredonia Humane and Best Friends secured grant funding for the mobile clinics.

"Some people said we should charge a small fee just so people would put some value on it," said Popowich. "But we're talking about a community where even a small fee might drive some people away. A lot of people here literally have nothing."

"People actually care, they just don't have the resources," confirmed Aldo Wilson, a vet tech at Best Friends who comes down for the clinics. "It's nice when you're really appreciated."

Sunday saw the chapter house transformed into a makeshift vet clinic, with 35 dog crates lining the floor in tidy rows. By noon the volunteers and employees had spayed, neutered and vaccinated 100 dogs and 11 cats - nearly twice as many as last year, with more waiting.

While the idea was to focus on Gap, some folks had heard about the clinic and come from as far away as Page, Ariz. Nobody was turned away.

Donated dog food, leashes and collars were available too.

Homer says she's already noticed a difference in the community. Now she hears her neighbors taking up her old refrain, "You should get your dog fixed."

"This is the way to educate people around here," she said.

Popowich knows a single clinic in a year isn't enough to really turn the tide, however. He'd like to offer three or four, but even with volunteer vets, the clinics are expensive. Medical supplies and vaccines must be purchased, and all the equipment and people have to travel a long way.

He's hoping other communities will imitate the Gap model, possibly finding other groups and resources to work with. And when every dog in Gap is fixed and vaccinated, Best Friends can move on to the next town.

If you'd like to help with the effort, donate to either Best Friends ( or the Fredonia Humane Society ( and specify that your donation is to the Gap Fund.

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