EMMONAK - Soon after Peter Jones heard the shotgun blast outside his Emmonak home, he saw his year-old puppy, Floppy, stumbling toward the bank of a nearby stream. It would take a second shot to kill the husky-mix after it collapsed at the water's edge.
Residents of the Western Alaska village had been warned that police would be shooting strays - a longtime practice in rural Alaska to control a sometimes burgeoning population. Jones, 52, said his family was devastated.
"A dog is like a human being with four legs and fur," he said of last spring's loss. "That's how I feel in my heart about my house dogs, something that you grow to love. Animals shouldn't be cruelly killed."
Historically, dogs in rural Alaska were considered working animals, not pets. Sick or unwanted animals in rural Alaska were simply drowned or shot, and many still are.
But times change, and attitudes have begun to soften. A new state law allows trained lay people to administer euthanasia drugs. While a good portion of the strays killed in rural areas are shot from a distance, proponents say the law will go a long way to ensuring a more humane death for animals that can be caught.
Some Alaska veterinarians remain cautious, primarily because of the potent drugs and liability involved. But supporters say it's an example of the old frontier Alaska mentality giving way to urban sensibilities.
"It's been a long time in the making," said Marianne Clark, a Soldotna animal control officer and catalyst behind the new law.
As in much of rural Alaska, shooting dogs remains a way of life for the 750 people who live in Emmonak, a Yupik Eskimo village at the mouth of the Yukon River 490 miles northwest of Anchorage. Village police officer Abraham Agathluk, 35, who grew up there, said police shoot the animals at the local landfill whenever possible. Otherwise they shoot animals on the spot.
"It's been handled that way as long as I can remember," Agathluk said. "People are used to it, but they don't like it. I think a lot of people would want a more humane way of destroying their household pets. I know I would. Shooting them is a bloody mess."
Before taking the animal control job in Soldotna, Clark euthanized scores of animals in Florida, which provided the model for Alaska's law. She began campaigning for a change in Alaska because the Soldotna shelter had to fit suffering animals around the schedule of a contract veterinarian - an option that's far more expensive and stressful to the animals than in-house euthanasia, Clark said.
In July the federal Drug Enforcement Administration approved the law, which allows the state to issue licenses to animal control agencies or other government entities whose employees have taken a euthanasia technician course.
So far the state has issued euthanasia permits to the Soldotna Animal Control, Fairbanks North Star Borough Animal Control, and Dillingham Department of Public Safety.
"Now we can take care of the animals in a more speedy manner," Clark said. "For outlying villages, it means a more humane approach."
Some veterinarians still see possible problems. Foremost among them: the potential for misuse of powerful drugs such as sodium pentobarbital, particularly in rural areas where substance abuse is a recognized problem.
The law will not immediately solve other potential drawbacks in the villages, such as skittish strays that are usually shot from a distance and the high cost of training. But it's a step in the right direction, said Dave Pauli with the Humane Society of the United States.
"In general, people don't like to see the shooting of free-ranging dogs," he said. "They may accept it as the status quo, but that's because they don't know any other way."
Nearly three decades ago, shooting dogs was the only way in Homer when Ralph Broshes was the first veterinarian to set up business.
Now there are two full-time veterinarians in the Kachemak Bay town of 4,700 people, said Broshes, president of the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association. Shooting dogs is now the exception rather than the norm. Even residents of nearby villages will fly their animals in to be treated or euthanized.
It's all about changing attitudes, Broshes said.
"People used to keep their dogs in a dog house in their backyards," he said. "Now they keep them in the house. Dogs are more a part of the family than they used to be."
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