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Battle underway to control stray dog population in First Nations communities

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A dog watches over a house on the Pikangikum First Nation, Friday, January 5, 2007.

JOHN WOODS / THE CANADIAN PRESS FILES Enlarge Image

A dog watches over a house on the Pikangikum First Nation, Friday, January 5, 2007.

MONTREAL - It's not everyday that a hockey rink is turned into an operating room.

That's what happened on a First Nations reserve 12 hours north of Montreal, over a four-day stretch last month, where a team of veterinarians set up shop.

They spayed or neutered about 250 dogs as part of an effort to control the growing stray population in Opitciwan, Que.

It's one of dozens of such campaigns that take place each year across Canada's north, where wild dogs have long been a problem in remote communities, raising a host of health and safety concerns.

In the span of just over a month earlier this year, a 10-year-old girl and seven-year-old girl were mauled to death by dogs in separate incidents in Manitoba.

New initiatives including stricter bylaws, educational workshops, and sterilization campaigns are being employed to get the problem under control. Funding and resources, though, are often scarce.

"The overall goal is to control the stray population to make sure that there's less unwanted and abandoned litters," said Ewa Demianowicz, a manager with Humane Society International who was part of the group that travelled to Opitciwan at the reserve's request.

"When you get there, there's an overpopulation problem and there's also a welfare problem. We see a lot of injured animals or animals that are obviously sick or have a wound, and there's no veterinary clinic anywhere nearby."

While dogs have historically played a key role in the lives of First Nations communities, often relied upon for hunting and protection, today many are struggling on a limited budget to cope with overpopulation and strays.

Culling, which was previously seen as a quick way to reduce an out-of-control stray-dog population, has become increasingly taboo.

A Manitoba petition against the practice last year gained support across the country. It called for more federal funding to assist in spay-and-neuter programs.

Some communities, like Rama Mnjikaning First Nation, 150 kilometres north of Toronto, have taken a different approach. It has seen positive results from putting tougher rules in place.

The reserve's bylaw supervisor Al Sawyer said when he first started as an animal control program in 1996, there were big problems. Stronger regulations were necessary to make sure residents and visitors to the community were safe, he said.

"You can't have dogs running around if you're going to have people coming to your establishments running at large," he said.

But tougher rules aren't always sufficient to deal with the problem on reserves in more remote, northern communities, where there are often more dogs than residents and little access to veterinary care.

Dr. Jasmine Dhillon, a veterinarian and PhD candidate at the University of Saskatchewan, is involved in a new project aimed at coming up with solutions on a case-by-case basis. She meets with community members, including elders and the tribal council.

"In the end our goal is to have models, so that if you want create a new bylaw or education program or spay-neuter program, we can help with that," she said.

Dhillon said studies show some communities average upwards of more than two dogs per household.

For the project in northern Quebec, HSI partnered with the Quebec organization Chiots Nordiques (Northern Puppies).

They set up a similar clinic last year for dogs and cats in Wemotaci, Que., a six-hour drive north from Montreal.

Demianowicz said it's been difficult to keep up with demand, especially given the costs.

"It involves a lot of finances, to be able to bring a team up there and set up a clinic," she said.

"These communities often don't have the necessary resources to have these groups coming in."

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