(Photo: Ruth Steinberger)
Rez dogs, feral dogs living on Indian reservations in the United States and Canada, cause countless problems in communities where they roam untended.
Their life expectancy is 2-3 years. During that time they often suffer from debilitating mange, parasites, rabies, distemper, and starvation. But still the litters come.
Wild dogs roam in packs, killing livestock, wildlife, and each other, spreading disease, and sometimes attacking people. Dog bites have been twenty times worse than the national average.
On the vast Navajo Nation, wildlife and animal control manager Kevin Gleason estimates there are four to five dogs for each of the more than 89,000 households – or as many as 445,000 dogs, most of which roam unchecked, killing livestock and biting people with alarming regularity. Source
At one time tribes offered a bounty for trapping and shooting feral dogs.
However, animals are an important part of American Indian history, not as pets as we view dogs. The idea of owning land or owning animals was not part of their culture.
[Historically] The animals were revered as spirits, and although they were hunted and killed, their skins and hides were used as clothing and drums, their meat was never wasted, and their spirits lived on in the mind of the tribes. Source Indians.org
To help solve the feral dog problem more humanely, tribal leaders called on spay and neuter expert, Ruth Steinberger, 56, to sterilize thousands of dogs and to move puppies to different parts of the country.
My own veterinarian (one of the many reasons I love him) took part in the project, spending several weeks a year working pro bono in an area so remote that they had to move in personnel and equipment by horse and pack mule.
In eight years they sterilized 7,000 dogs and moved 1,500 of them to other parts of the country for adoption.
The problem with spay and neuter programs is that after the dogs are trapped, surgery requires a veterinarian, a sterile operating room, anesthesia, and time and space for the recovering of the animals.
Birth control vaccine
This fall under the leadership of Steinberger there is a two-year plan to catch and inject 300 wild female dogs with a birth control vaccine. The vaccine, GonaCon, has been effective as a contraceptive on white-tailed deer and wild horses.
The $60,000 study will be conducted by the National Wildlife Research Center and Steinberger’s Oklahoma-based organization. Half the money for the project is coming from the Petco Foundation. Until now no one has stepped forward with the necessary funding to test the vaccine on a large number of dogs.
The dogs will be caught, microchipped, tattooed, collared, injected, vaccinated and released. And then after a year researchers will round up as many as they can to measure the reaction and effectiveness of the vaccine.
There are an estimated half a billion feral dogs around the world with tens of thousands of people in third world countries dying of rabies each year, 95 percent caused by dog bites. In India alone 40,000 people die from rabies.
Widespread spaying is not an option. The combination of GonaCon and rabies vaccine would go a long way to improve the lives of many.
And in case you’re wondering, GonaCon can’t be used on domestic dogs in the United States. The Food and Drug Administration requires about ten years of testing before it would be allowed on the market. That would cost between $16 and $20 million.
But it may well be that in the future our present practice of yanking out the uterus and ovaries will be considered barbaric when a contraceptive vaccine is proven to be safe and effective. More