Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/5/2017 (1104 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
Last week, animal lovers across the province — across North America, even — were disturbed to learn the story of Polo, a dog I treated for thermal burns he sustained after being thrown into a fire pit by children in one of Manitoba’s remote northern communities.
The public response to Polo’s story was heartening, with people at home and abroad donating thousands of dollars to cover his medical expenses. It was inspiring to see such an abundance of concern for the fate of this poor little soul.
This week, however, the warm feelings evoked by Polo’s story were replaced by widespread horror and sadness at the revelation that a young mother from another northern First Nation, Donnelly Rose Eaglestick, had been attacked and killed by a pack of hungry dogs on, of all occasions, Mother’s Day weekend.
For some it might be hard to fathom two such disturbing events in the span of a week. For those who visit and work to improve animal welfare within Canada’s remote communities, it is surprising these types of stories are, in fact, not more common.
Isolated First Nations communities are underserved in a multitude of ways, not the least of which is the provision of animal health and welfare services. Without easy access to basic veterinary care, such as vaccination and spay and neuter surgery, communities become overrun by unruly packs of roaming dogs, which breed rampantly, fight amongst each other, bite children and attack people; which pose a serious public health threat as potential vectors for the rabies virus; and which usually succumb, eventually, to starvation, gunshot, vehicular trauma or preventable infectious disease.
As gruesome or inhumane as dog culls or "shoot days" (during which marksmen are paid to shoot and kill every loose dog they can locate) might seem to animal-loving city dwellers, residents of remote communities frequently have no other option. When one-third of Manitoba’s First Nations are not accessible by all-weather roads, the closest available veterinary care might be an airplane and/or boat ride away.
Each year, Manitoba’s animal-rescue groups feverishly fundraise to hold a handful of low-cost, M.A.S.H.-style mobile veterinary clinics in an effort to mitigate the dog problem in remote areas. I have personally volunteered for many such clinics and always find these initiatives to be personally fulfilling and graciously accepted by community pet owners.
The sad truth, though, is grassroots efforts alone will never have a significant impact on a complex problem that plagues most of the 60 or so First Nations communities in the province.
To address the issue, policymakers need to invest in developing programs that make resources and education available to people on reserves living with and among dogs. The provision of regular, consistent, government-subsidized veterinary services is the only way to curb an out-of-control stray dog population. Easy and affordable access to vaccination against rabies and parvovirus is the only way to protect animals and people from deadly infectious disease.
Clearly, there is also an urgent need for progressive school programs that teach children about dog safety and bite prevention, while still promoting compassion toward animals and a nurturing of the human-animal bond.
To some, these ideas might sound overly ambitious or even naive, but the present course of doing essentially nothing, of plunging our collective head in the sand with respect to this issue, is not working well — or, in fact, at all — and is certainly not in the best interests of the people or animals affected.
Addressing the problem of dog overpopulation in First Nations communities will require a multi-faceted approach born of a collaborative effort by all stakeholders, including the provincial government (the minister of agriculture, the chief veterinarian’s office, the health minister), Manitoba’s veterinary community, animal welfare organizations and, of course, the chiefs and councils of the communities themselves.
The time has come for those concerned to demand that political leaders do better by the people and animals in the forgotten and neglected corners of our province. If we continue to falter in facing these challenges, not only will the suffering of Polo the dog and the horrific loss of Donnelly Rose Eaglestick have been in vain, but it will be only a matter of time before the next inevitable tragedy makes headlines.
Dr. Jonas Watson is a veterinarian based in Winnipeg who provides medical care to animals living in remote communities throughout Canada’s North, and in other parts of the world.
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