Animal advocates fight neglect in Alaska's Bush communities

Three Aniak women spread the word on responsible pet ownership

Posted: Monday, March 02, 2009

ANCHORAGE - Finding half-dead puppies lying on the floor of a shed at 40 below with no food, water or bedding did not go over well with Kathy Sweeney of Aniak. But when this Yup'ik grandmother picked one up to check it over and part of its frozen tail fell off, that was the last straw.

No more silence. Now anyone who neglects or abuses an animal in her village is going to be hearing from her. The family responsible for these puppies did.

They'd gone upriver for several weeks, leaving their dog and her newborn pups to fend for themselves. Sweeney learned later there had been 14 in the litter. By the time she intervened, 10 had frozen to death.

This is often how it goes in remote areas of the state where people live closer to the edge - places without regular access to veterinary care, animal control services and the resources to back up animal welfare and cruelty laws.

In Bush Alaska, where a sack of dog food can run $60 and spaying and neutering is uncommon in some villages, nonexistent in others, it's a matter of practicality to let nature take its course. That means unwanted dogs often freeze or starve to death, except for the lucky ones, relatively speaking, that get it over with quickly by being shot.

Aniak, like many villages, has an ordinance requiring dogs be contained or controlled, since dog bites, with the possibility of rabies, are a public health issue. Without animal control services, there really isn't much in the way of options other than "disposing" of them the old-fashioned way.

That's why people like Sweeney are taking matters into their own hands. As animal advocates, they hope to change the way people think about dogs and other domestic animals, and are doing what they can to save a few without going broke in the process.

After the puppy-tail incident, Sweeney and two friends - Bev LeMaster and Sue Luchsinger - put together a rescue group they call Canine Comfort in Aniak, a village of 600 or so about 90 air miles up the Kuskokwim River from Bethel. It's not an official nonprofit; it's just three women spreading the word on responsible pet ownership and saving some dogs along the way.

"We see a lot of dead dogs," said LeMaster, who's lived in Aniak going on 13 years. "They're expendable. If it doesn't work out, you shoot it or abandon it."

Canine Comfort raises money through bake sales and such to help pay for dog food and other rescue expenses. Last summer, Sweeney did a lot of scrounging for materials at the dump, pulling nails out of boards, for making dog houses since so many village dogs spend their lives on chains without any kind of shelter.

Jumping into the Bush dog issue takes some backbone. It's a touchy subject with no easy fix.

"They haven't had anything like this out here in the Bush, ever," Sweeney said. "And we are finding a lot of resistance and a lot of resentment. People have referred to us as 'those dog lovers.' I don't take that as an insult."

In Galena along the Yukon River, Suzette LaPine-Rosecrans has rescued so many dogs the city manager dubbed her "the official unofficial dog catcher."

In a place where gasoline costs $7 a gallon, and a gallon of milk is $10, people are just trying to survive, she said. And Galena hasn't had a spay and neuter clinic since the last time itinerant vet Eric Jayne came to town two years ago.

The Bush Vet, as Jayne is widely known, is a spay and neuter crusader who will "fix" dogs on people's kitchen tables if that's all he has to work with - cheap, and often for free. He's practicing out of state now, but still comes up to do Bush clinics, sponsored now and then by the Humane Society of the United States, according to Regional Director Dave Pauli, who has accompanied him on some of these runs, including one village-hopping trip down the Yukon.

Spaying and neutering is the big-picture solution to the Bush dog problem, advocates say.

Aniak gets a visiting vet once or twice a year, but a spay or neuter there costs up to $245. Families don't have that kind of money to spend on a dog, so Canine Comfort has also subsidized a couple of those surgeries. The Aniak rescuers wish they could do more, but it's not like those bake sales provide a huge budget for them to work with.

In addition to pushing the spay and neuter solution, Sweeney would like to strengthen Alaska's animal-welfare laws. Although Alaska is no longer close to dead last in terms of animal protection laws, the state merely inched from 48th to 42nd place after the Legislature last year made a third cruelty, abandonment or neglect offense a felony.

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