Animal advocates fight neglect in the Bush

Spay and neuter services, vet care almost nonexistent

February 25, 2009 

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.

Aniak city manager Ron Powell is "100 percent supportive" of the team's efforts.

"They're rendering a service and not getting a lot of recognition for it," he said. "At least on my watch, we're going to do whatever we can to help them out."

The city has offered use of some land behind the public works shop, and the plan is to fence in an area for Canine Comfort's dogs. For now they go to Sweeney's place, and she's got 10 of her own as it is.

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."


Canine Comfort isn't alone.

In Kalskag, teacher Melanie Pitka got her ninth-grade homeroom students involved in a project they named Humane Humans after she took in a mother dog and pups that weren't being fed.

In her village, with no practical alternatives, unwanted dogs get "taken to the dump."


"I never questioned that too much," she said, "because I don't want to know."

Pitka has rescued a few village dogs and pups here and there, keeping some, finding homes for others, sending some into the animal shelter in Anchorage. A few of her students have done fundraising for dog food and supplies, and some girls built dog houses in shop class. But when the Kalskag school burned down last month, they went up in smoke along with everything else.

Pitka is discouraged but not giving up. She's looking forward to Operation Arctic Care, a roving, joint military project offering free health care for people and veterinary services for pets in remote parts of the state. It's headed to the Bethel area this spring.

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

"When we first came here 11 years ago, I was just distraught," she said. "I was told puppy control was taking them to the dump and dropping them off, where they'd be bear bait.

"It doesn't have to be that way."

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 -- and for cheap. 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.

Robert Sept, who has practices in Chugiak and Bethel, is one of several veterinarians around the state who travel to rural Alaska, offering clinics. He said he's seen a "huge improvement" in animal care in the past 25 years. But there are still too many dogs nobody wants. And it's not just a village problem. Even in Anchorage, where people have access to low-cost spay and neuter programs, there are enough people who don't bother to fix their pets to keep animal shelters packed and rescue groups hopping.

Since resources are so thin, the rescue folks in Aniak, Kalskag and Galena have been sending batches of puppies and the occasional adult dog, along with a $20 surrender fee for each, to animal control in Anchorage and Fairbanks on air carriers willing to fly them in for free on a space-available basis.

Sweeney and the others can usually find someone heading into the city willing to do escort duty. Having someone pick up on the other end, take the dog to animal control and then return the pet carrier to the airport has been the hard part. And there's no guarantee the dogs will be adopted instead of euthanized at the pound. But at least they have a chance.

So far, Pitka's rescued puppies have been adopted within 24 hours, she said. LeMaster of Canine Comfort says her group has heard back from a few people who've adopted Aniak dogs, one of whom mentioned how happy the dog was to discover the couch.

This arrangement works for now because it's small scale, but it makes Anchorage Animal Care and Control Center officials a little nervous. There are more than enough irresponsible pet owners in Anchorage to keep its kennels full.

As Anchorage animal-control spokesperson Brooke Taylor puts it, the unfortunate reality is that when the shelter is full, "the difficult decision must then be made to euthanize adoptable animals."

In addition to pushing the spay and neuter solution, Sweeney would like to strengthen Alaska's animal-welfare laws. According to the Animal Legal Defense Fund, a national group working to toughen cruelty laws, our state could use that. 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 made a third cruelty, abandonment or neglect offense a felony last year.

"This is something that's really important to me," Sweeney said.

"I used to wonder why I'm here on Earth. It didn't seem like I was doing anything productive for anybody but my family. Once we started Canine Connection, I felt like that empty spot in me has been filled."

Canine Comfort can be reached at, or PO Box 242, Aniak, AK, 99557.

Find reporter Debra McKinney online at

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