KETCHIKAN — Donita O’Dell, founder of the Southeast Organization for Animals, said she likes to envision Southeast Alaska as one big community with several neighborhoods.
“I’ve been thinking about it for probably four years,” O’Dell said.
O’Dell was an employee at Ketchikan Gateway Borough Animal Protection for about four years, and now works for the Alaska Marine Highway System. She founded SOFA, a nonprofit organization, in December.
Her goal is that people in Southeast communities will work together, with the help and leadership of SOFA, to help animals receive better health care in remote areas, to find homes for unwanted animals and to increase education about responsible animal ownership in all areas.
“We are concerned with the whole region,” she said.
Her experience as an animal control officer, combined with her new job, where she sees all of Southeast on a regular basis, made her realize that it was time for animal advocates to broaden their view on how to help area families and their animals.
She said every community has similar problems, but some have made more progress with pet health issues, such as spaying, neutering and vaccinating and also with stray animals and overpopulation.
Some communities, such as Juneau, Haines and Sitka, have made so much progress in their spay, neuter and adoption programs, O’Dell said, that people are on long waiting lists to adopt from the local humane society.
The Ketchikan area is far behind in animal welfare issues, she said, and SOFA has plans to increase education locally and in nearby communities.
SOFA’s first event in the interest of reaching those goals was a vaccination clinic held in Metlakatla this past weekend. Each vaccination cost $6, and the group inoculated 36 dogs and 10 cats Feb. 23.
“That was really a big help,” Metlakatla Indian Community Executive Secretary Diana Yliniemi said.
MIC this past year instituted a requirement that Metlakatla residents vaccinate their animals and register them with MIC. Enforcement hadn’t been practical because of the daunting expenses and difficult logistics of getting cats and dogs to the Ketchikan clinics.
Packs of loose dogs in Metlakatla can be a headache for law enforcement officers, Yliniemi — whose husband is Metlakatla Police Chief Nick Yliniemi — said. There is no shelter or holding facility in the town, so officers who catch roaming dogs have no way to keep the animal out of trouble or to contact the owner when it has no registration tag.
Diana Yliniemi said that people must license a pet when it is 5 months old or older, and within 30 days of bringing a new animal to the island under the new rules. If an owner fails to vaccinate, a $50 fine can be charged, and if owners fail to register their animals, a $25 fine can be charged on top of that.
Monica Mangis, who is the veterinarian at Ketchikan Veterinary Clinic, said she is helping SOFA wherever she is needed.
She had some experience with rural veterinary work when she was a student volunteer with Christian Veterinary Mission in Honduras for two weeks, and two years ago when she worked for two weeks in Hooper Bay with another veterinarian in a high-volume spay/neuter clinic.
She vaccinated and examined animals at the Metlakatla clinic, accompanied by about 10 Ketchikan volunteers, including clinic assistants Amy Foster, Jordan Morales and former assistant Carol Towne.
Metlakatla volunteers were eager to help, O’Dell said.
Megan Blandov, a 10-year-old who said she dreams of becoming a veterinarian, jumped into the thick of things.
Megan said she helped when people filled out their forms by holding their restless dogs’ leashes.
One memorable moment, she said, was when she was in a side room helping while a cat was receiving its vaccination and the cat became so frightened it emptied its bladder.
“Everyone was having a hard time breathing,” she said.
That did not put a dent in her enthusiasm, evidently, because she had two words to describe her experience as an assistant at the event: “Pretty awesome.”
Her mother, Angela Blandov, who helped register participants at the Metlakatla High School’s shop, said Megan has wanted to be a veterinarian since the age of 4. They have had many pets over the years, and now have three dogs, a cat, a parrot and three fish. Her favorite animals are cats, Megan said.
SOFA plans another vaccination clinic in April and a “MASH-style” spay-and-neuter clinic in June with the goal of sterilizing 100 animals in two days.
Blandov said a lot of people in Metlakatla are on a fixed income, and want to be good pet owners, but simply can’t afford to get their animals to Ketchikan because of the high cost. She said the visiting clinics have been extremely helpful.
“I think it was awesome they were willing to come here,” she said. “They were really encouraging to Megan.”
Other Metlakatla volunteers were high school students, MIC staff and community members.
O’Dell and Mangis said they were overwhelmed by the warm hospitality of Metlakatla’s residents.
“There was lots — lots of support there,” Mangis said. She said they even were served fresh fry bread with breakfast, and hot coffee.
O’Dell said one woman immediately asked, “What do you need and how can we help you get there?”
“I cannot imagine a more welcoming environment,” she said.
O’Dell said she and SOFA board members are making plans to educate pet owners in southern Southeast. She said she noticed a marked difference between pet-owner attitudes in the communities farther north, where vaccination and spay/neuter rates are high and disease and unwanted animal rates are low.
“People are coming from a different knowledge base,” she said. When she has worked to place animals in homes in Ketchikan, for instance, she said people often were surprised or annoyed when they were asked to sign an adoption contract requiring them to spay or neuter and vaccinate.
In communities such as Juneau and Sitka, she said, “that is normal to them.”
A side benefit of the low-cost vaccine clinics, O’Dell said, was that she, the veterinarian and assistants, and the other experienced volunteers can build relationships with people and share information.
They also are drafting a plan to visit classrooms to share information about vaccination, spaying and neutering with youth as well.
O’Dell said a very specific goal SOFA will work toward is to eradicate parvovirus in Metlakatla within five years. The rate is unusually high there, and it not only causes problems in that community, but infected dogs spread the disease to Ketchikan as well.
Other plans in the works include implementing a feral-cat management plan in Ketchikan, facilitating or maintaining a cat sanctuary in Ketchikan, targeting “free to good home” high-risk litters of puppies and kittens for early intervention of vaccination and spay and neuter in all communities and developing a foster care network in Southeast.
O’Dell emphasized the core value she has built SOFA around as relationships with people.
“We treat every person with compassion and respect every time,” she said.