Man's best friend has a friend in Gail McKenzie, an Alberta postal worker who flew five dogs down from Shamattawa, Man., this week to be spayed or neutered at no cost to their owners.
As hobbies go, this one's expensive for the postie who's using her free time while the mail service is caught in a labour dispute to look after her first love: dogs.
She says support from a boyfriend who shares her passion makes the effort worthwhile.
"I'm fiercely protective of the dogs," she said Thursday, from Catrysse Veterinary Services on Portage Avenue where vet Dr. Noel Catrysse was performing the surgeries.
"I've spent thousands out of my own pocket, and my boyfriend has donated a lot of money," McKenzie said.
The passion doesn't stop at flights for dogs, either.
McKenzie runs a non-profit charity to help pay for the Manitoba spay-neuter missions, plus a dog rescue and sanctuary in the Calgary area where McKenzie lives. The sanctuary is registered with Oopsadazy.com and accepts monetary donations through the site.
Shamattawa is the third Manitoba First Nation, including Norway House and Cross Lake Cree Nations, where McKenzie has offered the service since 2005.
In Shamattawa, RCMP Const. Gennifer Furkalo linked McKenzie up with dog owners who wanted the service. The police officer is also active in finding homes and veterinary care for strays from Shamattawa.
First Nations lack veterinary services and without them the dog population explodes, leading to periodic culls in the communities.
"You know the reality, right? In some communities, dogs get shot. I'm trying to create an alternative way," she said.
Grinding poverty, poor social conditions and soaring food costs make caring for a dog next to impossible in places like Shamattawa.
"The people are more poor there than the average native community. The cost of living is through the roof, and I really give people credit for surviving under tough conditions," she said.
It takes a full day to make the 750-kilometre plane ride one way with arrangements for the animals. The dogs going back are owned by families too poor to fly them out for proper vet care, McKenzie said.
In Winnipeg, the dogs are not only fixed, they get their shots and they're dewormed and deloused.
First Nations respond to McKenzie's missions, and they invite her back.
"I'm planning to go back up north in September," she said,
The cost per dog averages about $200, depending on the cost of private vet services and support from local humane societies.
"Whenever there's no veterinary services, you're going to see a rise in pet populations, same as it is with cats in the city," McKenzie said.
"Every dog (fixed) saves 12 to 20 pups ever being born. The more animals you fix, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to know, you'll see a drop in the population, and it's compassionate to the animals."