by Julie Hauserman
At South Dakota’s impoverished Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, packs of skinny dogs run loose and breed at will. In winter, too many dogs on the two-million acre reservation freeze to death. Preventable health problems like distemper, parvovirus and mange are rampant.
Tribal member Clarence Rowland learned about his reservation’s widespread animal disease problem the hard way when he lost his seven-month-old puppy, Mato Win, to distemper.
“I’d never even heard of the disease,” says Rowland, 20. “A lot of our dogs die from it, and it could be prevented with a vaccine. I’d never heard of this vaccine until this year.”
Making animal care a priority
Today, Rowland works with other members of the Oglala Sioux Native American tribe in a cutting-edge program called Lakota Animal Care Project. It offers compassion in a place where alcoholism, addiction, violence, and an 85 percent unemployment rate can create a bleak day-to-day existence. Teen suicide on the reservation is five times the national average. About half the families live below the national poverty line and go without electricity and indoor plumbing.
In such desperate conditions, animal care just hasn’t been a top priority. Virginia Ravndal, a wildlife ecologist and United Nations biological diversity consultant, witnessed the widespread animal suffering when she married a tribal member and moved to the reservation. She founded the nonprofit Lakota Animal Care Project so that tribal members could become empowered to help their dogs, cats and horses.
The Humane Society of the United States’ South Dakota State Director, Darci Adams, volunteers her time with the group. She helps train Lakota Animal Caregivers and finds South Dakota animal shelters and forever homes when people surrender unwanted animals to Lakota Animal Care Project.
“I think it is a really innovative program,” Adams says, “because it is engaging the tribal members, it is helping the animals, and it is nurturing the next generation, who are learning kindness and compassion for the animals on the reservation.”
Caregivers educate, raise awareness
To become a certified Lakota Animal Caregiver, tribal members take intensive training to learn how to examine animals, administer treatments and give vaccines.
When they pass three rigorous tests and practicums, they take an oath before a tribal elder, a veterinarian, and the other Lakota Animal Caregivers. Once certified, they go house-to-house giving out vaccines and mange, flea and tick treatments, and educating people about animal care. Besides providing basic animal care, Lakota Animal Caregivers promote spaying and neutering, enhance compassion for animals and help find foster homes and adoptive homes for unwanted animals.
“I joined Lakota Animal Care because I wanted to help other people with their animals,” Rowland said. “It has made a lot of difference for the dogs out here. They are healthier.”
Ravndal said taking “before” and “after” photographs of dogs afflicted with mange has created a positive buzz on the reservation.
“We have a lot of hairless dogs on the reservation. Seeing the mange treatments working, seeing the dogs grow hair again—people on the reservation have seen the difference, so they have hope,” Ravndal said.
Twenty-eight-year-old Victoria White Hawk decided to train to become a certified Lakota Animal Caregiver after her Labrador, Blackie, was bitten by a rattlesnake. With no veterinarian available, she called Ravndal for help. Fortunately, Blackie survived.
“Most of the people’s dogs out here are sick and they don’t know what to do. It costs too much to go to the vet,” White Hawk said. “I am an animal person. I want to help people understand that the dogs are kind of like our ancestors.”
Sadly, there isn’t a single veterinarian available on the sprawling reservation. To help fill that need, The HSUS’ affiliate, The Humane Society Veterinary Medical Association, has been lending a helping hand to the reservation’s animals for the past 13 years. HSVMA Field Services, a non-profit veterinary outreach program, provides a week-long spay/neuter and wellness clinic for dogs, cats and horses at Pine Ridge each summer.
Bringing a community together
Since Lakota Animal Caregivers is a community-based program, it will hopefully help keep animal care as a priority among families on the reservation. The Lakota Animal Caregivers are working on outreach to the community, as well. They take dogs to Wounded Knee District Schools for a “Reading To Animals” program where schoolchildren read stories to dogs, cats, horses, and other furry friends. A new program—Sunka Scouts—will allow children to earn badges as they learn various aspects of animal care. (Sunka, pronounced “Shunka”, means ‘dog’ in the Lakota language.)
“Through Sunka Scouts, kids will learn that we can do things to help our animals. It’s not a matter of just leaving them to die. We can do something to help,” Ravndal said. “They learn that animals are our four-legged friends and they learn greater respect for all our relations.”
Lakota Animal Care Project also received grants that allowed the group to hire tribal members to build custom-made insulated dog houses to give animals shelter during the bitter winters.
“Instead of buying dog houses, we think it is better to have community members make them,” Ravndal said. “Any time you can create jobs here, it is a good thing.”
The houses are painted with the colors of the four directions—yellow on the east, black on the west, white on the north and red on the south. The houses are insulated with shredded paper from the school, and each has a plaque with the dog’s name and its family’s name.
As the Lakota Animal Caregivers travel around the reservation, they attract crowds of children.
“It has a big effect on our young people for them to see someone young like me working with Lakota Animal Care Project,” says Clarence Rowland. “It gives them hope. My eleven-year-old sister now says she wants to be a vet when she grows up.”
“A lot of cases of mange—they are getting better,” he adds. “For us to make a difference on the reservation means a lot to me. I am really glad our dogs are getting better.”
Julie Hauserman is a staff writer for The HSUS.
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