Someone else’s trash: Rez dogs saved; rez dogs lost

Kathleen Stachowski   Other Nations


Dumpster pups reunite; M. Greener photo, Bozeman Daily Chronicle

From tragic to jubilant in eight short words: “Puppies left to die in garbage bin reunited.” The headline pulls you into the story–you already know it ends well–but still, you have to confront the fact that someone callously trashed a box of 10 newborns during a frigid Montana winter. Instead of freezing to death, the babies–some had not yet opened their eyes–were rescued by RezQ Dogs (websiteFacebook), a volunteer rescue operation “committed to helping the unwanted and abandoned dogs from the Fort Belknap and Rocky Boy Indian reservations” in north-central Montana. Tiny Tails K-9 Rescue (websiteFacebook) stepped in to help, and the rest is happy history. 

A little more than a year after their rescue, eight of the now-adopted 10 dogs were reunited, the joyous occasion documented in an article picked up by the Associated Press that recently appeared in our local, west-central Montana paper. “I love her story,” one of the adopters told the reporter. “I love that we get to be a part of her story now. These puppies were someone else’s trash and they’re treasure to us.”

Someone else’s trash. The comment called up a memory that every so often comes back to haunt–now 20 years later. After returning to college in mid-life to become a teacher, I eventually did my student teaching on the Navajo (Dine’) Reservation in Arizona. I was placed at a small, isolated dot on the map where I had wonderful students, many from families where elders spoke only Navajo. I was kindly accepted by traditional people who knew I respected their culture, cared about their children, and endeavored to teach them the very best that I could.

1982142_491370700968409_1327831003_nBut oh, the dogs. Everywhere, the dogs. Along roadsides, in towns, congregated in parking lots (see recent video shot by caring travelers), at gas stations and garbage dumps, dogs everywhere: limping, lactating, half-dead, fully dead; mean dogs, wary and nice dogs–hungry, sick, desperate dogs. It was shocking–appalling. This was tragedy enough, but more was coming my way. One day I explored the local canyon, which eventually narrowed into a slot. Nearing its head, the strip of daylight far above was a mere few feet wide. There, in the semi-darkness, illuminated by a shaft of light from above, three perfect, beautiful puppies lay on the sand. They appeared unscathed–like they were napping–but they were dead, tossed into the slot canyon from the rim above. Someone else’s trash.

Reading about the Montana dumpster puppies brought that memory bubbling to the surface, prompting me to revisit the issue. The phenomenon– “outdoor, stray, and feral dogs living on Indian reservations in the United States and Canada”–is widespread enough to have its own Wikipedia entry under “rez dog.” But, as I already knew, no simple, single root cause is responsible.  Geography, socioeconomic factors, suspicion, culture, sovereignty–all play a role in this canine tragedy. Consider the Rosebud Sioux Reservation:

Veterinary services on Rosebud are a luxury. The reservation is located in Todd County, S.D., the second poorest county in the United States, where 48.4 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, according to U.S. census data. What’s more, the nearest veterinary hospital is more than 40 miles away, in Nebraska. “Most people on the reservation barely have enough money to take care of their family, let alone their pets,” explains the Lakota woman, who asks not to be named. “Rabies shots and deworming are beyond most family budgets.”  ~from “Good Medicine,” JAVMA, Dec. 2013

Then consider the sprawling Navajo Nation–at 27,000 square miles, it’s larger than 10 of the 50 U.S. states (source). But unlike the states, this vast area is home to just 175,000 people (2010 census) scattered in small communities and isolated villages where established veterinary services are nonexistent. Pinning down the number of strays is difficult, if not impossible–I’ve seen the estimate placed at 160,000 at a few different online sources; others say more than 440,000 dogs are free-roaming, likely including many who are “owned” to one degree or another. Like the dust devils that whirl across the spectacular desert landscape, dogs are born and they die in unending, revolving cycles.

The Navajo word for dog is descriptive, and while it can’t be typed without a Navajo alphabet font, it means “pet that defecates–all the time; everywhere.” Describing the Dine’s relationship to the dog isn’t quite so straightforward. In their traditional cultural role as protector of the family’s wealth (sheep) and home, dogs were held in high esteem–though never treated as spoiled, indoor family members. But as life on the reservation has shifted away from traditional lifestyles, dogs are now more likely to be housing complex threats and town nuisances–fighting, biting, spreading disease, killing and being killed. And breeding–always breeding many replacements.

The tribal government has done little to support those Dine’ who want to work for change. Watch “Rez Dogs,” an excellent 41-minute documentary (2007)* and listen for the disconnect between the words of former Navajo Nation president Joe Shirley (“we’re doing everything we can”) and the reality on the ground, where scarce shelters are grossly under- or unfunded and tribal animal control officers resort to mass roundups and killings. Listen for suspicion about the motives of outside groups conducting neuter and vaccination clinics on the rez, and frustration on the part of those groups when nothing changes. You’ll hear compassion and concern–and chilling callousness: One boy says he swerves to hit dogs on the road because there are just too many. The intractable nature of this decades-old problem painfully reveals itself.

422751_335653743152739_1326520636_nBut even as dog populations continue to grow, good things are happening. A high-volume spay/neuter clinic on the Rosebud Sioux reservation is making a noticeable difference. The Tuba City Humane Shelter (western Navajo Nation) successfully teams up with rescue groups to feed, foster, adopt, and spay/neuter. The Navajo Nation Puppy Adoption Program (Facebook) facilitates fostering, adopting, and education, asserting that “this alone (the unwanted dog problem) brings disharmony, first and foremost, to the animal and it continues on to us as a people” (source). As of a couple years ago, the program was reaching out to elementary school kids with humane education (see Navajo Times). In Canada, Dogs With No Names uses a contraceptive implant to successfully reduce populations.

Compassionate, persistent people–tribal and nontribal–are doing what they can within the confines of apathy and poverty to stem the tide of suffering rez dogs and cats. They deserve our gratitude and support. But it’s a relentless tide, inundating tribal lands and border towns with ever more lives in distress. And while strides forward are made daily and one precious animal at a time, it’s sadly easy to anticipate that another box of babies will be found in a dumpster and splashed across the news wire to arouse our momentary horror and anger. This piece is dedicated to the compassionate ones on the battlefront who go forward without flinching–who never quit ministering to “someone else’s trash.”


*Though free to view, “Rez Dogs” is interrupted by brief commercials. I experienced a glitch near the end and was unable to finish viewing, but what I saw was very well done. I contacted the folks at SnagFilms and they’re working to fix it.

Learn more:


7 Responses

  1. Reblogged this on Animal Love and commented:
    Is there anything for me to add? The plight of these animals and those working to help them needs more publicity, more people working to help. This is heartbreaking.

  2. I have seen this rez dog film before, it’s very informative since the story is mainly told from the Native side.

    Watching it, you will see the logical disconnect in these communities, starting with their mythological tales. In one segment an elder explains how the Creator gave them dogs to watch over their sheep. The problem with this is that domestic sheep came to North American only with the arrival of the first Europeans. Second problem is, as evidenced by the very graphic segment shown in the film, no one fed or looked after these dogs, so the dogs ended up killing and eating the sheep.

    Another segment of note is how modern living has exacerbated the problem. Prior to European contact, the Navaho had a small population that lived in many small villages. These days they live in crowded neighbourhoods of modern row housing and the Native population has exploded. (These are the words of one of the Native leaders). Under these conditions, the dog population has also exploded.

    Again, this is a very informative film for those who are unaware of rez life.

  3. This post has caused me to have another one of those “where have I been moments”… I was just totally unaware. The crimes and damage we do to others just keeps compounding. I’m so grateful you put links to follow those who are attempting to fix the problems. What a situation to repair. And for those of us so many hundreds of miles away – The best that can be done is monetary support. I’m on it and hope others will follow. These poor dogs were dealt such an ugly hand. Thank you for making us aware.

  4. It all comes down to the lasting effects of the biggest holocaust done to the Native people. If a group of people are oppressed, there is no way in hell that the overpopulation of dogs will ever be solved- it’s a lost battle. These people were FORCED onto infertile land, their true identity erased while the privileged benefitted and CONTINUE to benefit from their sufferings.
    Oh, and prior to the unlawful theft of land by the Europeans that continue to live on STOLEN land, millions of Natives populated these lands.

  5. Obviously Yas did not watch the documentary where the Native leader explains the cause of the dog overpopulation problem; a fast growing human population crowded together in new subdivisions, which is not how they used to live, spread apart.

    That’s ok, carry on with your politically correct interpretation, it fits your narrative so well.

  6. The Navajos are NOT oppressed people, I have no respect for them …They get EVERYTHING for free (2 ) checks a month plus all the commodities they can have and all medical free…they are abusive to all their animals all they want is to say they have stock to get compensated by the Gov or us hard working people because that is where they get their money ….They can get their dogs fixed for FREE but they choose NOT to …I struggle with a business of my own while my hard working money goes to them and their kids….My ancestors are from Mexico as so was , I have been here since I was 4 so I do not owe them nothing nor do others , what Americans fore fathers did was many years ago and all this frrbee stuff should end, this new generation did not fight , the only reason it does not end is because they get everything free and they vote democrat , it is all political …So to say oppressed , I do not think so , they choose this way to live so they can get more…I know I live among these people and it sickens me !!!

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