Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

They Shoot Dogs, Don't They?

It's an uncomfortable topic, and when I heard the news I knew it would cause some degree of controversy. But I also know from experience that it's not an easy situation.

Some of the reserves to the north of Fort McMurray are having issues with feral and wild dogs. This is a common issue in remote communities, and not just on reserves. I have encountered it before when I lived in northwestern Ontario, and it is a difficult topic, because some of the communities with this issue turn to a very controversial solution: dog culls.

I first learned about it when I was living in Red Lake and was scheduled to visit one of the northern communities serviced by the small airline I worked for at the time. I had selected a date but when I called our service agent in that community they urged me to choose a different day. I didn't understand why and pressed for an answer as to why they didn't want me to come that day - and they replied that it was "dog shooting day", and they didn't want me to be there for it.

I spent a good part of my adult life working in veterinary clinics, and I love animals of all kinds, but I am very much a realist, too. I didn't understand the reasons behind "dog shooting day", and so I asked my contact to elaborate. They explained that there had been several incidents in the community of people being approached by packs of feral dogs, and that at least one child had been bitten. While most of the dogs were timid some were becoming increasingly aggressive as winter drew closer and food sources were drying up. The incidents were becoming common enough that there was fear a pack of dogs could attack and fatally injure a resident, and so the leadership had decided it was time to deal with the issue, and shoot the dogs.

My contact had pet dogs, and felt terrible about the entire thing. They were sure I wouldn't understand, but I understood far more than they realized as I knew they were facing a serious issue with little recourse, because there are few resources available to help in these situations.

Pets in remote communities are often not spayed or neutered, particularly in fly-in communities because veterinarians don't often visit and the costs to transport the animal to the vet is prohibitive. And so the animals reproduce as animals do, and some of the offspring begin to run wild. My contact explained that the feral dogs, the ones who had had contact with owners, were usually ok but that it was the next generations, the ones born feral, that were worrisome - and the problem was growing.

Now it would be nice to think that you could round up all the feral dogs, fly them out, and rehome them through animal rescue agencies, but again cost is a factor, and many agencies simply aren't equipped for an influx of dozens of animals, on occasion sick or injured.

And my contact explained too that waves of disease had spread through the feral dog packs, distemper and parvo and all the diseases unvaccinated animals can contract. People would find dead and dying dogs and puppies, and there was a high fear that rabies could surface too, as it did occur in the wildlife in the region and it was just a matter of time. The dogs were not living a good life, they were starving and sick and injured and suffering - and so the dog cull was being carried out.

They had contacted agencies for help, and no one could provide the financial or logistical assistance they needed, but they knew that would likely be the case as this wasn't the first dog cull they had done. And so I didn't go that day, but not because I condemned their decision, but rather because they asked me to stay away.

I want to be very clear - I am a dog lover, and I love my pets dearly. But I also know that animals running wild and feral can present a very clear risk to human safety and health, and it is very difficult to find a solution when your community is remote and the assistance available is scant. I am so very glad that the Fort McMurray SPCA has offered to assist in finding a long-term and sustainable solution to the issue, but I also know they have financial constraints and limitations on capacity.

This is not a simple issue, and not all that unusual as I learned in my time in northwestern Ontario. Perhaps if we invested more in organizations like the SPCA and other rescue organizations there would be no need for these culls as there would be the finances and capacity to deal with the issue, but sadly at present there is not. And so, desperate times call for desperate measures, and some communities are forced into dealing with a very difficult and sensitive issue. If you, like me, feel terrible about this then I suggest donating to the Fort McMurray SPCA so they have the resources to create educational programs and long-term solutions such as spay and neuter clinics in our remote communities.

Like I said, it's an uncomfortable topic - but sometimes I believe those are the ones we need most to discuss.

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