Good medicine

High volume neuter clinic a ray of hope on American Indian reservation
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At times, the noise inside the garage is deafening. Several dogs housed in cages lining the concrete floor bark anxiously, while others sleep or sit quietly. “Dogs are good medicine. They bring joy and laughter to the children,” says a woman, a member of the Sicangu Lakota tribe, for whom the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota is home.

Thomas Valandra and Chico
Thomas Valandra brought his pet dog, Chico, to the temporary neuter clinic on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation for a rabies vaccination.

Near a stack of tires are two bathrooms where wide-eyed cats in cages and pet carriers are sequestered from the din. Most days, the garage is the place vehicles owned by the tribal government are maintained. From Oct. 16-20, however, the facility served as a bare-bones, high-volume neuter clinic where rabies vaccinations and basic veterinary care were also available, all free of charge, partly as a result of support from the AVMA and American Veterinary Medical Foundation.

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.”

For many years, when the stray dog population on Rosebud grew too large, the Lakota rounded up the dogs and shot them—a common practice on many American Indian reservations, where resources to address the overpopulation problem humanely are scarce. Now, Rosebud is an example of a successful, high-volume neuter program run by a nonprofit partnering with a community living in endemic poverty.

Preventive measures

There were times when the number of stray and free-roaming dogs on the Rosebud reservation posed a serious problem. People were bitten; dogs were abused or left to fend for themselves. The roundups were the most efficient remedy. In late 2002, tribal leaders decided to adopt a more compassionate method of dealing with the dogs. They reached out to Spay First, an Oklahoma nonprofit providing high-volume pet neutering in areas of chronic poverty, to help reduce the population of unwanted dogs humanely.

It’s strange for me to be doing a temporary spay-neuter clinic in America. Usually, these are the kinds of clinics we set up internationally in countries that have limited veterinary access or there are a high number of feral and stray animals.

Dr. Tiffany Tupler, primary surgeon at the October clinic

Spay First held the first high-volume neuter clinic on the reservation the following year, and the dog roundups stopped. Ever since then, the clinics have been held up to three times a year. Pets relinquished at the clinics are sent to animal shelters in other parts of the country for adoption or are humanely euthanized.

Spay First Executive Director Ruth Steinberger says Rosebud is on the front line of the spay-neuter movement, because few impoverished communities take a prevention-based approach to managing unwanted dog and cat populations. “We’re not teaching the Lakota how to treat animals better but reminding them how to be good stewards,” Steinberger explained.

“The Lakota are a people who had companion animals and probably treated them better than the Europeans who came here,” she continued. “When a people’s culture is attacked, a lot of the fiber that holds them together falls apart. Things that have become tragic on the reservation were imported.”

Northern plains states

Within two years of holding the first high-volume neuter clinic, the results were already becoming manifest. “In 2005, we learned from the two local grocery retailers that as the number of dogs on the reservation declined, the sales of dog food increased. That’s pretty telling,” Steinberger said.

A year later, the director of school programs on Rosebud wrote to Steinberger about the neuter clinic’s success. “(T)here has been a very visible—indeed, remarkable—difference in the number of stray animals,” Dennis Gaspar wrote. “A few years back it was not unusual to see dozens of stray dogs hanging around any one of our 11 attendance centers. Now it is rare to see a stray animal anywhere. This means our children are safer and have one less thing to worry about.”

Steinberger estimates close to 8,000 cats and dogs have been neutered on Rosebud since 2003.

The AVMA and AVMF started funding the high-volume neuter program on Rosebud in 2012. The AVMF has approved a budget of $100,000 each year from 2012-2015 for equipment, supplies, and the salaries and travel expenses of the veterinarians and veterinary technicians staffing the clinics. Dr. Sheilah Robertson, an assistant director in the AVMA Animal Welfare Division, has been medical director for three of the clinics.

“AVMA and AVMF’s decision to be involved in this project signaled that animals in chronic poverty are not just numbers,” Steinberger said. “Their hands-on involvement sets an example for the world.”

Spay/neuter surgery suite
With assembly-line efficiency, dogs and cats are prepped for surgery, neutered, and then returned to their cages or crates to recover.
Left: Pet dogs are a common sight on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation. Right: To minimize their stress, cats are kept away from the dogs.

In the trenches

Drug logs show 177 dogs and cats were either spayed or castrated during the October clinic. Volunteers from the Lakota tribe and trustees from the reservation jail kept the process going by checking animals in, cleaning cages, and providing rabies vaccination tags. Surgeries were performed from morning to night, with staff often working 11-hour days.

Dr. Tiffany Tupler was the primary surgeon at the clinic. Two years after earning her DVM degree from the University of Florida, Dr. Tupler performs high-volume spays and castrations on a contract basis. When she first learned the details about the clinic at Rosebud, she was reminded of her work among impoverished communities in foreign countries.

Dr. Robertson and reservation trustees
Dr. Sheilah Robertson works with trustees from the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation jail to load an anesthetized dog into a cage.

“It’s strange for me to be doing a temporary spay-neuter clinic in America,” Dr. Tupler said. “Usually, these are the kinds of clinics we set up internationally in countries that have limited veterinary access or there are a high number of feral and stray animals. This is not something you’d expect to see here.”

Things that have become tragic on the reservation were imported.

Ruth Steinberger, Spay First executive director

Dr. Robertson of the AVMA couldn’t agree more. “A lot of people that live in the U.S. aren’t exposed to the many animal-related issues that go with extreme poverty,” she said. For example, transmissible venereal tumors were diagnosed in a female dog brought to the reservation clinic. This is a condition common among community dogs in areas of chronic poverty. “It’s a disease I’ve seen frequently in Mexico, but I was surprised to see it so far north,” said Dr. Robertson, adding that veterinarians and veterinary students don’t have to travel overseas to help animals living in extreme poverty.

“They don’t realize that the exact same situations and, in fact, worse situations exist in their own backyard,” she said.

People and animals suffer together in communities where poverty is endemic. For this reason, Spay First is a supporter of the one-health concept. One of the more obvious examples of the relationship between human and animal well-being, according to Steinberger, is rabies prevention. Avoiding the births of unwanted animals in large numbers goes a long way toward protecting people as well as animals from the zoonosis, she said.

Dr. Tupler sutures a cat
Dr. Tiffany Tupler sutures a cat. Close to 8,000 animals on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation have been neutered since 2003.

“The outcome benefits the dogs but may be initiated on behalf of human health and safety,” Steinberger explained. “Either way, we get there.”

Click here to see more photos of the neuter clinic on the Rosebud Sioux Indian Reservation in South Dakota.