2017-09-06 / Top News

Stray Dogs on Rez: A national disaster

By Maxine Hillary
Native Sun News Today

Traditionally dogs had a place among tribal peoples. They helped herd, went out with hunting parties. Before horses, they were pack animals. Dogs guarded the camp, protected the children— they were partners. Some cultures ate dogs. Others held ceremonial burials when their canine companions passed on. All over North America, traditional stories tell of the dog’s loyalty, courage, and connection to the Spirit World. The dog was revered and honored. The most beloved warriors among the Northern Plains people were known as Dog Soldiers. So how did the partner become the pest?

Andrea Goodman is the president of the Oglala Pet Project, which operates on the Pine Ridge Reservation. She sees the dogs as part and parcel to the human issues in the community she serves, “The poverty, drugs, alcohol— families who can’t afford food. Animals are left abandoned and the strays keep producing…”

Kimberly Benning who with her husband Keith, founded the Turtle Mountain

Animal Rescue in North Dakota echoes her thoughts. “Thirty five percent of people around here live below the poverty line,” she says. “They are unable to provide for their pets. And it’s also attitudes. A lot of what we see is that many folks don’t see a dog (or a cat) as a family member or pet. We see many, many dogs chained to a substandard shelter 24/7— every day with no regard to the extreme weather we have here North Dakota. These animals live their entire lives on a 6-foot chain with very little, if any love and affection.”

Glenda Davis has been the Program Director for the Navajo Nation’s Animal Control Division for a little over a year. A tribal member, she grew up on the reservation and has been working with animals there for over 40 years, first as a veterinary technician, later as the head of the Navajo Nation Veterinary and Livestock Program. On the fourth day on her new job she responded to a disturbing call: a four-year old boy had been mauled to death by his neighbor’s dogs. It wasn’t the first incident of its kind and certainly not the last. A few months later, another Navajo man was killed by dogs while visiting a friend.

The Navajo Nation is big. Twenty-seven thousand square miles. It’s a place with a lot of open road between communities, and a lot of clustered housing close to schools, clinics, tribal offices. Davis’ program employs six animal control officers, each responsible for 4500 square miles. It has three working shelters. Still that’s not enough. 10,000 animals are euthanized each year because nobody claims them and the shelters can’t house them.

Says Davis, “We need to decrease the risk to our communities. We have to pick up animals that are running loose. If they are picked up and they have a collar or a microchip, we will hold them for 72 hours. Any animal that does not have identification will be immediately euthanized. Our shelters only hold 12 to 18 animals. When we do a community sweep, many times we pick up between 50 and 75.” Sad as the death of a healthy dog, unclaimed dogs who get picked up on her reservation fare better than those in other communities.

Kim Benning reflects on how strays are handled at Turtle Mountain. “There is a Housing Authority dog catcher and a tribal dog catcher. Dogs that are found on tribal housing premises are picked up, taken to the garbage dump and shot by the end of the day. Animals found on other areas of the reservation might be held at the dog catcher’s home for a few days before they are also shot at the dump. They will tell you that they find homes for them, but all you have to do is go to the dump and see the corpses.”

Issues surrounding the burgeoning over-population of stray dogs in Indian Country are multi-faceted. Lack of family income, addiction, attitudes— policies, and funding all figure into the similar, yet unique situations across Indian Country.

The Navajo Nation has a bonafide program with some resources. On the Navajo Nation, the majority of strays come from tribal members’ homes. Sometimes they can afford to care for their animals. Other times they receive help from animal welfare organizations. Still others don’t do anything. Davis says that pet owners should not have a way to ignore their obligation to their animals and their communities. “People need to value their animals and take care of them. They need to put those few dollars out there to be reassured that they’re going to get good quality medicines. If they love their pet, they need to own it by getting a collar and license for it,” so if it gets picked up, we can contact them--If they can’t afford a pet, if they can’t do the minimal job of keeping that animal collared and micro-chipped, given proper food, water, and shelter they should not own one.” Davis also wants clustered housing communities such as those built by the Indian Health Service, the Navajo Housing Authority, and other mechanisms to have fencing. She cites issues such as uncontrolled breeding, livestock damage, and bites as largely coming from owned dogs running loose, which is prohibited on the Navajo Nation.

The Pine Ridge Reservation is one of the poorest places in the United States and the Oglala Pet Project is the closest thing it has to an animal shelter. Run out of its founder’s home in Kyle, Goodman says the discussion of personal responsibility as it applies to animals, is more challenging because unemployment is much higher and the issues are more severe. She tries to fill in the blanks. “We provide wellness, education and re-homing. We have a food bank for when we have extra food available. We don't have a vet here on the reservation so when funds allow we are able to send pets that have been run over, injured etc. to a vet in Nebraska. We do vaccinations, deworming, mange, flea, and tick treatments. We also offer spay/neuter clinics on the reservation a few times a year. I think the community is thankful to have a resource. Usually people are grateful for the help.”

Kim Benning says her program operates much the same. “There is no shelter or program here. My husband and I run Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue out of our home with the help of a handful of volunteers. We take in strays and owner surrenders. We are also more than willing to take animals from the dog catchers, but they have not worked with us with the exception of four dogs I received from them this month. There are semi-annual vaccination/spay/neuter programs that come up and provide services at no and very low cost to enrolled tribal members. We have people contacting us every day for either help with their own animals. And there are some people who are concerned about the strays.” Since opening the shelter in 2015, she says her organization has rescued nearly 1200 animals. Just a drop in the dump in a place where Benning says there are literally thousands of unowned dogs and cats.

Changing attitudes--getting people to properly feed, house, and contain their animals as well spay or neuter, vaccinate, and be compassionate in places were some of the people struggle with myriad human issues can be daunting. Davis cites the local animal control officer as the first on the list of people who can best help people on her reservation to be better stewards and she wants to increase the resources so they can be at the forefront of assisting and educating her communities. Senior animal control officer Stacy Daw agrees. She sees her role not just as the person who will go out to respond to an animal nuisance call and issue a citation or confiscate a pet, but as the point person for helping animals and their owners. A 21-year veteran, she’s been rescuing dogs since she was a child on the Navajo Nation and believes that loving animals is the most important qualification for the job. Says Daw, “Pet owners should be educated on vaccination requirements, spay and neuter, animal laws, and animal care. We need more shelters for the rural chapters such as Lechee, Torreon, Aneth, Pinon, Dilcon, Ramah, and Tohajiilee or substations for those communities. We could use more money and training for more officers. The Navajo Nation needs to see that we are an important asset. We are not just “dog catchers’.”

Most people working on the issues of dogs and cats in Indian Country will tell you that there is a correlation between abuse and neglect to animals and that of people. Says Daw, “When I do home visits for Animal Control Services I see extreme poverty. Poor feeding of animals, no shelter, no pet dishes. The family is living with the same conditions and children are being neglected. The elderly are hoarding dogs and cats because all the adult children have left the reservation or just don’t visit parents anymore, they tell me, ‘These are my children now.’ Domestic violence is a major concern on the Navajo Nation with direct links to alcoholism and drug addiction. Pets are used to threaten victims of violence into compliance or secrecy from law enforcement, other family members, and the public.”

Davis is working to empower her officers to sound the early warning about human abuse and neglect when they see animals in bad situations. She wants animal cruelty to be part of a suite of policies that help animals and protect people. “It’s a known fact that in 83% of households that have animal cruelty there will be some kind of abuse or violence, whether that’s to children or the elderly or to other family members inside the home. Our officers have completed the first of three classes to become certified animal investigators, so we are moving forward to change a lot of the social issues--to find early interventions into some of the problems. So [part of the solution] is going to be working with our prosecutors, our legal system…but we also need the financial ability to move forward. This year we will be moving legislation through the tribal system to strengthen our codes and animal cruelty will be part of that.”

Part and parcel to changing attitudes is teaching people what good animal stewardship looks like, but that has to be done carefully. Says Benning, “I don’t think it’s good to go to a reservation and ‘teach’ people how to be responsible pet owners. I try to work with people, to gain their respect and function in the community. That’s how we get ‘buy in.’” Noting issues of trauma, Benning also sees racism as another factor in the reasons for animal neglect and cruelty. She says if people lived better and were more respected by the communities outside the reservation, it’s likely that animals would do better too. “We believe with all of our hearts that if there were more opportunities for employment at a decent working wage, there wouldn’t be the huge animal problem here. When people have to choose between getting their dog spayed or feeding their children, there really isn’t a choice at all. This isn’t a Native American problem, it’s a poverty problem.”

Animal welfare organizations in Indian Country are truly grassroots. They depend on local volunteers, households that will temporarily house dogs and cats, contributions from individuals, groups, and individuals; and partnerships with other organizations. Both the Oglala Pet Project and the Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue welcome foster homes, donations of money, food, in-kind contributions and other organizations that want to get involved. Nobody who wants to volunteer is likely to be turned away either. Both envision a time when the communities they serve have proper shelters that can house more adoptable animals, provide veterinary and spay/neuter services. When there are far fewer dogs and cats dying simply because they are unwanted.

Back on the Navajo Nation, Glenda Davis is working with tribal government, Indian Health Service, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs in hopes of developing a model program—one that can provide low-cost veterinary care for tribal members, humane programs, and stronger more enforceable codes. Encouraging pet owners to invest in their pets and making it possible for cash-strapped families is part of the equation. “With our partnership with the Indian Health Service we’re working on sites for free rabies shots. We will provide licenses and give out leashes to community members to promote humane education so they understand that their animals need other vaccines aside from rabies. We’re establishing a collar, license, vaccinate, confine campaign.” She’s also looking for ways to strengthen the laws that protect animals and people. “We aren’t going to pull something out of New York City and try to implement it on a tribal nation. We don’t need all the new and improved bells and whistles, we want it to work on Navajo. And what’s that going to start as is to put some teeth into what we already have.”

While some may see her request for more funding for more animal control officers and shelters, considering all the human needs, she goes back to the health of the Navajo Nation and the people who live there. Teaching emerging generations how to be compassionate is an investment into a stronger community. Says Davis, “A lot of taking care of pets will bring light into some of the human issues. I think it’s a huge learning curve, especially for children who are an age where they can learn to be compassionate and learn to be respectful of life. When you look at the adults who have experienced abuse or who have been abused, they are a lot more difficult to turn around. We’re going to need to find tribal members, especially tribal council delegates who understand that paradigm. We can’t go back to the old idea of being a sheep herder and drowning puppies.”

She’s begun the process of procuring land for new animal shelters and is thinking of who would staff them and how they would fit into communities. As she thinks about the role of the animal control officer in helping communities, the design of new shelters, the services her program can provide to her constituency, and what a generation of Navajos who care about animals might look like, she rejects the notion that her culture has anything in it that doesn’t support proper animal care or that the Navajo Nation cannot become the benchmark for good animal practices in Indian Country. She draws on her Navajo culture as the best model for success. “We need to go back to our old ways and be self-sufficient. We need to plan. We need to prepare for our animals just like we prepare for every season of the year whether we’re planting or harvesting or for winter or for drought. These are the type of things that need to come back to the people. We have grandmas and grandpas who will sit all day and wait for their animals to be spayed and neutered. We’re moving toward a new paradigm.”

(Contact Maxine Hillary at

Looking for foster homes for dogs

As tribal animal control programs begin to develop and attitudes about animal welfare shift in Indian Country, animal welfare groups will probably always be part of the equation—as all over America.  The Oglala Pet Project has success stories such as a recently adopted dog, Annie, who was abandoned when her owner was arrested and all of his dogs were left with no food.  Somebody found her and after medical care, she was recently adopted. Another dog, Annie, was found by somebody driving by. Starving, covered in mange, and with a broken leg, she was healed and recently went to a new home.  The organization really needs donations for food, gas, veterinary care, but they also are looking for foster homes, particularly in the Rapid City area.  They can be found at or at 19980 BIA 2, Kyle, SD 57752 605.455.1518.  If you want to see adoptable dogs and cat from the Rez and read more success stories, look for them on Facebook at

Turtle Mountain Animal Rescue can also use fosters, contributions and volunteers.  Learn more about the animals they’ve been able to help and how you can be a part of their success through their website,  Find them on Facebook at

To learn more about the Navajo Nation’s Animal Control program click on their website:

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