Alaska veterinarians do disservice to dogs, villages

Elise Patkotak

Back in the 1970s, when I was the North Slope Borough health director, a man walked into my office one day and announced he was the vet from the Naval Arctic Research Lab (NARL) down the road from town.

NARL was in the process of closing its animal research facility and he was heading up the effort. But as things closed down, he found himself with extra time on his hands and wondered if there was anything he could offer in the way of his services to our community.

He had me at the word veterinarian. Barrow had an immense loose dog problem at the time and it was not unusual to see dogs in packs that were pretty scary. Since the advent of the skidoo, sled dogs had become extraneous.

People were not sure what to do with them and, if they escaped from their restraints, they bred at will. Between the excessive breeding and the endemic rabies in the area's fox population that so easily spread to loose dogs, doing something about the situation was getting critical.

Until Les Dalton walked into my office that day, the only solution had been for local public safety officers to shoot loose dogs. And shoot them they did -- usually on the streets of town where shooting was not necessarily safe given the human population also on the streets.

I took Dr. Dalton up on his offer and the North Slope Borough became one of the first bush areas of the state to attempt to address its loose dog problem in a systematic and humane way. He and I would go door to door in the smaller villages asking people to let us spay or neuter their animals.

We also offered routine vaccinations free of charge. Anything we could do to make the villages safe from loose and possibly rabid dogs would be a public health benefit to people, and a humane gesture to the dogs.

I recalled those days as I read about a bill recently introduced in our legislature that would allow licensed out-of-state veterinarians to travel to Alaska villages to provide care.

According to a story in Alaska Dispatch, "House Bill 152 stalled this session after being referred to committee. It would have allowed licensed out-of-state veterinarians to practice free of charge in regions of the state where no such services exist."

The story continued that while the Alaska State Veterinary Medical Association found the intent of the bill to be honorable, they felt the measure would somehow fail to protect people and animals from lowered standards of care because veterinarians from outside the state would not need a state license.

Here's the problem I have with that statement. "Standards of care" is a meaningless phrase in a community that never sees any care. When you have animals in pain because there is no care available, any care is better than suffering until you die or your owner has to shoot you.

Alaska veterinarians say they are willing to travel to these villages but need to be paid. While that is an understandable position, when you have out of state vets willing to come to these villages free of charge -- which is about what many of these villages can pay -- it does come across as selfish to block those services. You can argue for years over whether ANCSA corporations should help pay for these services for shareholders or whether health corporations should step forward to do something.

But while you're arguing, animals are suffering and dying while people willing to help them are kept away. That simply does not make sense.

I generally am a great admirer of veterinarians. They are some of the best people I've ever known. If I had my life to live over, I'd move near a vet school and do my best to marry one because the majority seem to be good, caring and compassionate people.

This is why I simply don't understand how they could block any program that would help ease animal suffering without having a substitute plan available.

Alaska has faced the problem of delivering care to remote villages before, and we will continue to face it in the future. What we need are "shovel ready" plans to address those needs, not opposition to the only solution being proposed.

Elise Patkotak is an Alaska writer and author of "Parallel Logic," a memoir of her 28 years in Barrow. Web site,