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Dogs multiply as pandemic hinders vet service on Navajo Nation

A sheepherding dog named Red rests in the morning sun before going out with the flock of Navajo rancher Leslie Dele outside Tuba City, Ariz., in April 2020. Because veterinary clinics closed during the pandemic, the dog population on the Navajo Nation is estimated to have grown to 250,000.

GALLUP, N.M. (AP) – Gloria Skeet used to run a couple of miles from her home to her sister’s place on the Navajo Nation just south of Gallup – until the dogs started to chase her.

“It was around 2008 that I started developing anxiety because there was a pack of dogs that would follow me,” Skeet, the Bááháálí Chapter manager said. “I was running with my dogs and I felt safe with them, but after that man in Sundance was killed by a pack of dogs, I thought, ‘Oh my God, when are they going to find my dead body?’”

Skeet was referring to Larry Armstrong, a 55-year-old Navajo man who was found dead in 2010 on a dirt road about 5 miles east of Gallup. When law enforcement found Armstrong, a pack of malnourished dogs was gnawing on his body. Armstrong, who suffered from seizures, died from dog bites, according to the autopsy.

Skeet, who has rescued dozens of dogs and even adopted some from her community and from the side of the highway, said there are thousands of dogs roaming in the Bááháálí Chapter area, and they mostly belong to someone. She said some families can’t afford to feed them and let them roam, fend for themselves and multiply in numbers that have become unmanageable.

“In just one Navajo camp, there are 92 dogs. And one family has about 18 dogs,” she said. “The thing is, the Navajo Nation has some really good laws but it does not have the capacity to enforce these laws.”

Navajo Nation Animal Control Manager Kevin Gleason said homeowners are allowed to have up to four dogs. At Navajo Housing Authority rentals, tenants can have two.

It’s hard to enforce those laws when the Navajo Nation has only six animal control officers for an area that spans about 27,000 square miles. Gleason said when his officers impound a dog, the violator “just gets another dog.”

Last year, the pandemic forced Navajo authorities to shut down three of four animal shelters – in Tuba City and Many Farms, Arizona, and Shiprock, New Mexico. The only open shelter was in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and only two officers worked for most of 2020.

Gleason said his officers normally pick up or receive about 20,000 to 30,000 dogs a year. About 80% to 90% of the animals taken to those shelters are euthanized. In 2020, his program picked up or received about 7,000.

Gleason estimates the dog population on the reservation to be back at 250,000 dogs, just like 10 years ago.

The pandemic not only affected the animal shelters, it also affected spay and neuter efforts and other veterinarian services on the Navajo Nation.

Dr. Kelly Upshaw-Bia, Navajo Nation veterinarian with the Navajo Nation Veterinary Program based in Tse Bonito, said the vet mobile unit was not used during the pandemic. The unit typically travels through the Navajo Nation, providing massive vaccination and spay and neuter services in rural areas where otherwise families would not have access to vet services.

Upshaw-Bia said spay and neuter efforts may help control the dog population, but she believes there’s a need for grassroots efforts and education in these communities.

“Community support is important. I don’t know if we are there yet,” she said.

She said there were times when the vet unit would go to rural communities where only a handful of people would show up with their animals.

“That can be an issue. We try to pick up chapters that are more active,” Upshaw-Bia said.

The Navajo Nation Veterinary Program has two vets on staff spaying and neutering every week, including Upshaw-Bia. In an average week, she spays and neuters 20 to 25 dogs. Spay and neuter efforts are provided to the community at the vet clinics on the Navajo Nation by appointment. Usually, they are booked a month in advance.

“It would be nice to have more clinics, but you would need more veterinarians,” she said.

Upshaw-Bia acknowledged attracting vets could be an issue if the Navajo Nation does not offer a competitive salary.

Back at the Bááháálí Chapter, Skeet said the last time a mobile unit visited her community to conduct a spay and neuter clinic was many years ago. She’s certain her community would take advantage of a low-income spay and neuter clinic because when the tribe offers a “surrender day” for people to give up unwanted dogs, they show up with dozens of dogs and cats.

“I know 99% of those dogs and cats are going to be euthanized, and I don’t want to be here when they have the surrender day. That breaks my heart,” she said.