BETHEL -- Walk down a boardwalk or dusty road in many Bush Alaska villages and you'll likely confront the colossal problem of stray, unchecked and neglected dogs. Puppies are everywhere. Dogs go hungry when owners struggle to pay for stove oil. Strays forage.
Sometimes, village residents round up aggressive or unclaimed dogs and shoot them. Sometimes, neglected dogs freeze or starve. In rare cases, which village leaders say they find outrageous, an animal is tortured. The flip side of so many strays is horrible too. Alaska Native children suffer among the highest rate of serious dog bites in the nation, according to a study published in 2013.
Rescue and veterinary groups as well as individual animal lovers are trying new ways to reduce the numbers of poorly treated dogs and hungry strays, including sending veterinarians to villages for spay and neuter clinics, putting dogs on planes to new homes, and working with rural communities to provide better care. The work makes a difference, say law enforcement officials and veterinarians.
In Bethel, for instance, police once shot dozens of dogs a year, said Police Chief Andre Achee. Now the 4-year-old Bethel Friends of Canines nonprofit regularly sweeps the pound to save dogs and helps village residents find homes for dogs too. Joan Dewey, the Bethel group's president and one of its founders, said it has arranged for adoptions of about 1,000 dogs in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta since July 2011.
Yet just as one dog is spayed and another is adopted, new batches of puppies are born. Some turn feral.
"It's a terrible way for a dog to live and it's dangerous for kids and elders," said DeeDee Jonrowe, a popular Iditarod sled dog race veteran, the public member of the state board that oversees veterinarians and, back in the early 1970s, Bethel's first dogcatcher.
Part of the problem is a lack of veterinarians. Even Nome, home to the burled arch Iditarod finish line, no longer has a vet. Nor does Valdez, Jonrowe said. Some rural hubs rely on traveling vets, including Bethel, where veterinarian Bob Sept treats animals one busy week a month.
While many people enjoy dogs as pets and even see them as members of the family, that perspective is most common among those with European backgrounds and isn't shared globally. Some Asian cultures raise dogs in farms for food, a controversial practice.
In remote Alaska villages, many residents struggle just to take care of themselves or their families, and those problems outweigh dog troubles.
"A lot of these people are living pretty harsh lives and that is reflected in the dog care," said Brian Berube, who recently left Bethel after eight years in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta working for the regional Alaska Native health corporation. His duties in environmental health included providing rabies vaccines to village dogs -- and he saw a lot of them.
A dog named Sam
Conflict over dogs recently erupted in Scammon Bay, but teachers and village leaders have very different views of the situation.
Two teachers new to the village said they were appalled by how dogs were treated overall and especially by the circumstance of a dog dragged to its death behind a four-wheeler last month.
"The first day that I came is when I wanted to go home because I saw all these pathetic dogs," said teacher Sharon Haubrich, who is new to Alaska and retired from a teaching job in Georgia.
She noticed three dogs chained to a pole with no shelter and asked if she could build a lean-to from spare wood.
Not necessary, a teenage girl responded. "They are Alaskan dogs. They are not kass'aq dogs," the girl told her, using the Yup'ik word for white person.
Another teacher, Kristie Parsons, said that a boy who smashed a puppy on the rocks told her that "my dad told me to kill it this way."
Parsons, who has lived in Alaska 29 years and is working on her doctorate in indigenous studies, said she has worked as a traveling teacher in many villages. Scammon Bay seems to have a particular problem with dogs, said Parsons, who moved on after less than two months there.
One yellow Labrador's neck was bleeding and infected from a too-tight chain being used as a collar, Haubrich said. She and Parsons began feeding the dog, which was named Rambo. She eventually was told she could have him and renamed him Sam. Then came a pronouncement that Sam was vicious and would be shot if left in the village. Bethel Friends of Canines, which has arrangements with Ravn Air and Everts Air Cargo to ship dogs for free or at reduced rates, oversaw the rescue. Sam ended up in Anchorage for emergency medical care and a new home. He was bleeding from his intestines and is doing better with medication and a steady diet, Dewey said.
He's friendly and so energetic that he could become a search and rescue dog -- not an animal that needed to be put down, she said.
'Thats not us'
The worst for the Scammon Bay teachers came Sept. 11 when a four-wheeler with a dog tied to it sped past Haubrich and Parsons as they walked from their housing to the post office.
"He was desperately trying to get his legs under him," Parsons said. The dog's leg marks left ruts in the dirt.
Slow down, Haubrich called out.
"The kids just laughed and smiled and kept on going," Parsons said. "They headed on towards the dump."
Haubrich later found the dog, dead at the dump.
"It was awful. I've never seen fear in something like in that dog," she said. Another teacher told the two that she saw other dogs being dragged.
Bethel Friends of Canines' Dewey and others began calling for change in Scammon Bay. Dewey called the Scammon Bay city manager, Larson Hunter.
Hunter said in an interview the city doesn't sanction dragging dogs.
"We don't condone it," he said. "That's not us."
He said he wants whoever did that to be held accountable. The village public safety officer looked into it. Troopers say they are investigating. No one has been charged.
"I'm the city manager and I don't want Scammon Bay to be portrayed as this barbaric community that takes pride in dragging dogs," said Hunter, who grew up there.
Looking for answers
On the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta, there's never been routine veterinary care outside of Bethel.
"This has led to an extreme surplus of unwanted and unkempt animals in our villages and has created an ongoing emergency situation that is a major threat to public health and animal welfare," Dan Winkelman, chief executive of the Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp., said in a July letter of support for Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc., one of several groups that send volunteer veterinarians and helpers into villages and hubs.
Between 2007 and July 2015, there were 841 reported dog bites in the Y-K Delta, according to YKHC. Since 1994, seven children under the age of 5 have been mauled to death.
Some residents only know their dog's age by how many litters it has had, the letter said.
Alaska Native children are hospitalized for dog bites at double the rate of U.S. children overall, according to a study in The Journal of Pediatrics published in 2013 that examined the incidence of dog bites between 2001 and 2008.
Village residents want to improve conditions for dogs and welcome help, said Angie Fitch, Fairbanks-based executive director of Alaska Native Rural Veterinary Inc.
"They roll out the carpet," Fitch said. "They open up their tribal halls and volunteer. We just provide the service and it will eliminate those kinds of problems with overpopulation and kids being bit and stuff like that."
Fitch also works with another group, Christian Veterinary Mission, which is sending a team to Hooper Bay and Scammon Bay for spay-and-neuter clinics, she said.
The Alaska rural veterinary program, with a board made up of Alaska Native leaders, has offered free clinics in 20 communities, from Arctic Village north of Fairbanks to Mountain Village on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta.
Alaska Rural Veterinary Outreach Inc., with a similar mission, has sent veterinarians to 10 Alaska communities. It charges low fees to cover costs, but no one is turned away who cannot pay, said Sally Clampitt, the Anchorage-based president and founder.
The Humane Society's Alaska branch also is working with a variety of groups to find help, both for rural animal owners in need of vet care and to ensure a humane response to the problem of village dogs with no owners, its Alaska director, Michael Haukedalen, said.
Dewey said she heard recently from a Chevak man who wanted to end the shooting of dogs there. A man in Nightmute just asked Bethel Friends of Canines to take his dog because he couldn't care for her. Kipnuk residents have flown dogs into Bethel to be spayed or neutered, then returned home. People in Kodiak and Anchorage end up on waiting lists for small rescued dogs, she said.
For now, shooting dogs
The Scammon Bay teachers say they were told the shooting of strays there has a name: Dog Elimination Day. It's announced on the VHF radio so that people can keep their own dogs safe. Haubrich said she bought 100 dog collars to make loose dogs look like they belonged.
"Everybody here knows about Dog Elimination Day," she said.
In a follow-up email to the city of Scammon Bay, Dewey also underscored concerns with rounding up and shooting dogs and puppies.
"Your practice of 'Elimination Day' is affecting the next generation of Scammon Bay youth, who unless they have exposure to a different human/canine experience may believe this is 'normal' and 'traditional,'" she wrote.
The shooting of dogs with no owners "has a negative psychological effect on entire communities," the letter from YKHC's Winkelman said.
The village has tried catching dogs and talking to owners about tying up loose ones, according to Scammon Bay's city manager Hunter.
"Those methods only go so far, so ultimately, when enough complaints are made, we shoot loose dogs," he wrote in a flier posted in the community.
Village police officers take the lead, Hunter said, but residents also have been paid to participate. He said he is going to stop hiring residents because of complaints.
"I want to distance myself from that," he said.
As to the name "Dog Elimination Day," he said "I have no idea where that phrase came from." The city has never called it that, he said.
Some villages put bounties on strays of $15 to $35 a dog, Dewey said.
Berube, the former Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. worker, remembers the shock he felt as a Y-K Delta newcomer when he saw a public safety officer in a village upriver from Bethel shoot a litter of puppies.
But the rough reality is that isolated villages will never get the same access to vet care as urban areas. Village residents love their dogs, too, and routine shooting of dogs is better than allowing them to starve or pose a danger to people, Berube said. There are too many village strays for all to get homes, he said.
"This is a desperate situation," Berube said. "It's a necessary public service."
Robert Gerlach, the state veterinarian, said shooting dogs, if done with a quick shot to the head, is an acceptable and humane way to put an animal down. For many in the villages, old ways such as clubbing, drowning or abandoning animals aren't accepted anymore.
The state began in 2011 crafting standards for animal care, including dogs. The standards, if finally adopted, would specify minimum levels of care such as shelter and water and could be used to educate all Alaskans, Gerlach said.
"Unfortunately, it stagnated," he said of the effort.
In Scammon Bay, Hunter said vet services would be appreciated. He also wants to hear from residents about the dog situation.
"We are open to any suggestions from the community," the flier said.
Alaska Dispatch Publishing