The June afternoon heat had hit its peak last week as two dogs lay quietly in the dirt. Brown and black with scruffy hair, they lingered in a scrap of shade beneath a towering McDonald’s sign on the side of U.S. Highway 160 in Tuba City.
Only when a tourist walked close by with his own leashed pup did the dogs rouse themselves to bark half-heartedly.
Dogs like these, with no collars and no nearby owner to claim them, have long been a part of life in Tuba City and across the Navajo Nation. While some meander harmlessly around parking lots and through neighborhoods, others have been known to intimidate kids walking home from school, nip at people going for runs or walks, harm livestock and other dogs and, in rare tragic cases, maul people to death. Often, they aren’t spayed or neutered and reproduce rapidly, and they are more prone to carrying and spreading disease, creating problems that spiral out of control.
With few resources to help them, animals who are abandoned or never had a home in the first place can end up getting hit by cars, succumbing to disease or starving to death.
While it is a long-simmering issue, some across the reservation, including a group of second graders in Tuba City and the new head of the Navajo Nation’s animal control, are trying to change its course.
“We need to get real. People need to be responsible for their pets,” said Glenda Davis, the new program manager for Navajo Nation’s animal control program.
A veterinary technician by training, Davis took the manager position in July with ambitious goals of reforming animal control and animal ownership on the reservation. As if to underscore the challenges she faced, just a few days after Davis took the helm, a 3-year-old boy was mauled to death by a pack of dogs near Dilkon on the Rez.
The Nation has six animal control officers to patrol the 27,000 square-mile reservation — about 4,500 square miles per officer. And with each of the approximately 46,000 households on the Navajo Nation owning four to five dogs, according to Davis’ estimate, the total number of dogs across the reservation could be as high as 230,000.
Responding to just three bite calls can take an officer two days because they are so far apart, she said.
Davis’ department has just three functioning kennels to take in the animals that control officers pick up. Due to lack of space and resources, animals are almost immediately euthanized, she said. The department destroys an average of 10,000 animals per year, according to a 2017 program report.
With so many calls about vicious dogs, bite cases, attacks on livestock and nuisance dogs, there is little time for officers to respond to calls from tourists or residents who report abandoned or unwanted animals, Davis said.
“What we find is puppies dropped off at intersections, food establishments, gas stations -- and it’s ugly to see an animal starving for food,” she said. Oftentimes, though, they have to let those calls go.
Davis is working on multiple fronts to address animal control challenges on the reservation, including pushing for stronger laws, laws that specifically address animal cruelty and cooperation from local courts to actually process and hear cases against people cited for animal control violations instead of letting many of them go. She also requested and got a proclamation from President Russell Begaye that announces a 2017 campaign to collar, license, vaccinate and confine pets, though the language isn’t as strong as Davis had wanted. She is committing her animal control officers to staff the animal shelters two days a month to provide collaring, licensing and vaccinations to the public and is hoping to reopen animal shelters in Tuba City and Crownpoint, New Mexico that were closed due to building deficiencies and land ownership issues.
She is also working on a voucher program to help people afford spay and neuter procedures and other veterinary services.
But to be truly effective, Davis said her program needs more animal control officers and additional funding. She thought the 3-year-old’s death and another mauling death several months later would have triggered a renewed focus and more resources for her program, but they really haven’t, she said.
In Tuba City, it was a group of second graders that took on the task of addressing roaming dogs in the community. Teacher Leslie Hosteen Jr. said several students in his class at Tuba City Boarding School told stories of being bit or chased by dogs, being scared to ride their bikes around certain areas and seeing their own pets killed by other aggressive dogs. A January article in the Navajo-Hopi Observer also reported that the Tuba City school district had received requests for school bus drivers to drop students off in front of their homes instead of at bus stops because of aggressive packs of dogs in the area.
Wanting to make a difference, the class did research about the tribe’s animal control laws and resources, wrote letters and presented at a chapter meeting, asking tribal officials to address the problem humanely. Their work spurred animal control officers to do a sweep of Tuba City, where they picked up about 40 dogs. Chapter President Gerald Keetso also said the chapter is working with the Navajo Nation to reopen its kennel and looking at ways it might fund an extra animal control officer for Tuba City.
“It’s a major issue,” Keetso said after a recent chapter meeting.
Hosteen also acknowledged, however, that addressing animal ownership runs into long-held beliefs and practices about how people view pets.
“A lot of people are like, ‘I feed it when it comes to my doorstep but it’s not my dog,’” he said. “It’s very hard to step on what has always been, but the kids did raise a lot of awareness.”
Rose Moonwater was one of those especially encouraged by the second-graders in Hosteen’s class. Moonwater is the president of the Tuba City Humane Society, which unlike Flagstaff’s humane association, is a “teeny little rescue foster group” without any sort of facility and scarce resources, she said.
The nonprofit responds to calls about animals that appear to be abandoned or homeless or injured in the area, then tries to find foster homes for the strays, Moonwater said. Volunteers work on getting the animals adopted within the community or pass them along to adoption organizations in places like Flagstaff and Phoenix, she said. Last year, the small nonprofit helped 238 animals.
Several factors contribute to the number of animals without homes, Moonwater said. Oftentimes, people get puppies but then, when they grow up, don’t want the dogs anymore. There are also both strays and animals with owners that roam loose and aren’t fixed. They breed quickly, producing even more puppies and kittens. Female dogs, for example, can have a litter of puppies up to twice a year.
“People come through and are so shocked at the situation that it’s hard for them to fathom that there aren't the resources that they have where they live,” Moonwater said.
It’s not just a matter of needing more money and people though. There also needs to be more buy-in from the community to get their animals spayed or neutered, vaccinated, collared, licensed, and to contain them, Moonwater said.
“There is so much that is needed but it really has to be in context of the whole community taking more responsibility,” she said.
Some of the struggles with exploding numbers of dogs and cats on both the Navajo and Hopi reservations are also linked to cultural beliefs and more rural-oriented attitudes toward pet ownership, said Adrienne Ruby, a veterinarian who lives in Dilkon but travels to Tuba City weekly to provide veterinary services. When she worked on the Hopi reservation, for example, Ruby said many people wouldn’t get their pets spayed or neutered because they believed it would affect their own fertility. Others viewed it as an unnatural process.
As far as animals roaming loose, that’s a rural attitude as much as a Native American one, she said. People in those areas just don’t think about putting their dogs on a chain or a leash, Ruby said.
“It’s a totally different animal culture," she said. “Things like a million dogs running around, it’s a very normal thing up here.”
She does see attitudes changing though and people taking more responsibility for their animals.
“I think there are a lot of people who really don't care, but there are a lot of people who do,” she said.
This article has been edited from its original version.