Rural Alaska

Adventurous new spay and neuter campaign aims to curb Alaska villages' stray dog populations

As the owner of the only Saint Bernard in the village, Darren Cleveland didn't want to be known as the guy who doubled the size of dogs in Quinhagak.

At 120 pounds, his 2-year-old dog, Czar, already towered above the husky mixes and knee-high mutts that roam the Yup'ik town at the edge of the Bering Sea. The dog had to be neutered before any big new puppies appeared on the village streets, Nelson knew.

"I didn't want to set up a new breed in Quinhagak, where people cannot take care of them," he said.

Unwanted strays are an enduring, common problem in rural Alaska, where the nearest veterinarian is always a plane ride away. The Bethel-based Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. investigated 73 bites last year alone in Western Alaska. Countless other ownerless dogs are killed each year by village police.

This year, a Fairbanks nonprofit has teamed up with the Bethel region health corporation to offer a potential solution. Instead of asking villagers to fly their dogs to the city, the doctors are coming to them. Veterinarians hauling surgical equipment by boat and by skiff, operating in village kitchens and tribal courtrooms, have spayed and neutered more than 250 dogs in at least 14 Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta villages since 2013. The Tanana Chiefs Conference has shown interest in attempting a similar program for Interior villages, organizers said.

"It's a real M.A.S.H.-type style surgical deal. Move up and down the river on a boat," said Tim Hunt, a Michigan veterinarian and Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race veteran who volunteered for the Kuskokwim River effort.

Hunt, who normally charges $250 per operation, performed more than 70 free surgeries in four Kuskokwim River villages over the final week of August. He neutered Czar the Saint Bernard on Saturday in a room above the Quinhagak washeteria. A favorite patient of the trip was an abused female named Luna in Akiachak, he said. Sometime in her distant past a child had cut off her ears.

"That dog's been through a lot of rough times," Hunt said. "Maybe spaying it, it will live a little longer. No more litters."

Many of the dogs Hunt and his teammates have encountered are short, brown mutts with full-sized bodies but stubby legs. Under breed, the volunteers write "village dog" on their paperwork.

"They're beautiful dogs," said Angie Fitch, a member of the team and director of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc., the Fairbanks nonprofit that covers travel and other costs through donations.

With adult females giving birth to two litters of puppies a year, at six to eight puppies per litter, the population of unwanted dogs can explode without a regular spay and neuter program, the group said. Rabies is ever-present in the regional fox population, making dog bites a serious concern among regional health care providers.

A police officer in one village Hunt visited on the most recent trip had killed 100 dogs in the past eight months, he said.

Organized with the help of Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp., the spay and neuter effort is funded mainly through donations. So far this year the program has visited Grayling, Anvik, Shageluk, Holy Cross, Napakiak, Quinhagak, Kwethluk and Akiachak.

In each village, a different public building serves as a makeshift veterinary clinic.

"We've worked in garages. Laundromats. Yesterday in Akiachak we were in an old construction trailer, in the kitchen," Hunt said.

Villagers arrived with their dogs on four-wheelers, with Hunt sometimes operating on cafeteria tables.

"It was pretty neat. We'd have a room of 15 dogs, and they were all together, and they'd all get along waking up," the veterinarian said.

Among the nearly 50 villages served by YKHC, almost none receive regular veterinary services, said Brian Berube, an environmental health officer for the corporation.

But a recent change to state regulations for veterinarians made efforts like the mobile Yukon-Kuskokwim clinics easier to organize.

Previously, veterinarians from out of state were not allowed to provide their services free of charge in Alaska villages without an Alaska license. The state Veterinary Board has now made an exception for remote communities that lack medical care for animals, similar to the exception made for visiting Iditarod veterinarians.

As a result, another nonprofit effort, headed by Anchorage-based Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach, has held spay, neuter and vaccination clinics in remote communities over the past two years, said president Sally Clampitt. That group plans to sterilize 68 dogs in Nome beginning Friday.

The effort by YKHC and the Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc. program with YKHC began separately last year with visits to seven villages.

The project is gaining momentum, organizers said. In 2013 they spent two days in Kwethluk spaying and neutering 17 dogs. This year Hunt was in the village for just 24 hours and operated on 22 dogs in the tribal courtroom.

"When we got there we had people waiting there for us," he said.

The team plans to visit Hooper Bay, Scammon Bay and Chevak in the fall with the help of another volunteer doctor or doctors. While the program is growing, YKHC's Berube said much work remains.

"You're walking out and you see 25 dogs on your way to the boat," he said. "Sometimes you feel like it's a drop in the bucket."

Kyle Hopkins

Kyle Hopkins is special projects editor of the Anchorage Daily News. He was the lead reporter on the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Lawless" project and is part of an ongoing collaboration between the ADN and ProPublica's Local Reporting Network. He joined the ADN in 2004 and was also an editor and investigative reporter at KTUU-TV. Email