The cat and dog overpopulation problem on the Navajo reservation has been persistent and immense. It’s also pretty well known.
Tens of thousands of cats and dogs without and with homes roam the largely rural 26,000 square-mile reservation, which extends into three states. The number of strays could be as high as 160,000, according to some sources.
The Kayenta Animal Care Center did a survey a few years ago for that area and found that there was one dog for every home and one cat for every other home. It estimates that today there are 1,633 dogs and 532 cats within its boundaries alone, and that does not include 20 to 30 strays.
At the heart of the problem: Cats and dogs with owners are too often not spayed/neutered, allowing them to breed unchecked. They are usually not vaccinated either, thus deadly diseases, like distemper and the parvovirus, spread like wildfire. Like the ferals, they are even left to fend for themselves for food. Loose dogs, in particular, are a danger to people, and bites are frequently reported.
Under the Navajo Nation’s Dog and Cat Control Ordinance, dogs must be licensed and have a rabies vaccination starting at three months, and all animals, except cats, are prohibited from running at large. Violations are punishable with fines, ranging from $50 to $100.
The Navajo Housing Authority has its own policies regarding pets. It permits only two per household; all owners must abide by the Navajo Nation Dog and Cat Control Ordinance; and the owner must show proof that dogs have been vaccinated and keep their dogs on their premises.
Low-cost spay/neuter and vaccination clinics, some mobile, are offered throughout the year by local veterinarians and animal organizations from off the reservation.
Tamara Martin, president of the Blackhat Humane Society, told AIR that dogs were once a valued part of the rural lifestyle.
She said: “They protected the sheep and guarded the hogan. Families lived miles apart, and dogs’ lives were short due to injury, disease [lack of vet care]. When families began moving to cities, they brought their dogs. The dogs had no work to do; they began breeding like hotcakes, and strays became as common as the plastic bags blowing in the wind. Animal Control is poorly paid and understaffed. They have no facilities to hold animals and don’t encourage adoption once the dogs are incarcerated.”
Martin does not know how many animals are impounded each year, but she estimates that 85 percent of those picked up by Navajo Nation Animal Control are euthanized. Owners that don’t want their pets to suffer that fate must pay fines and licensing fees.
Blackhat Humane Society, founded in 2000 and based in St. Johns, Ariz., is the only humane society on the Navajo reservation. It is funded mainly by donations, many given by visitors who want to do something to help, Martin said. It also sells merchandise, like t-shirts and a “Dogs of the Navajo” calendar, and there are some fund-raising events. It gets no money at all from the tribal government.
Blackhat is a “no-kill” organization, although it will humanely euthanize aggressive or severely injured animals, Martin said. The animals that it takes in live in foster homes, provided by volunteers, until permanent homes can be found.
It currently has about 50 animals in foster care. All will be vaccinated, socialized and spayed/neutered prior to adoption.
Martin believes that time is key to the animal overpopulation problem. “Most reservations are 50 years behind the rest of the U.S. One day there will be a Navajo Nation Humane Society Shelter, staffed by well-paid Animal Control personnel, and Humane Society volunteers, like our group, will be available to help with intake, adoptions, foster care and walking and socializing the animals at the shelter. At this time, animals are not a priority in tribal government.”
Education is also important. Blackhat has foster homes across the reservation, and many of the volunteers are school teachers who see what they are doing as a way to educate children by example.
“Navajo kids see that we contain our animals, rather than letting them run loose. We have buckets of water on our front porches so that animals have a chance to drink. We talk to the kids in our neighborhoods about spaying/neutering and let them know about the low-cost spay/neuter opportunities in their area,” Martin said.
Many of Blackhat’s volunteers will vaccinate their neighbor’s animals at no cost to help fight the spread of diseases. When it receives dog food donations, it often goes to families with pets in need.