IFAW Canada: Continuing Journal of the Northern Dogs Veterinary Effort
This post was filed by the International Fund for Animal Welfare's Jan Hannah, working from remote Cree communities, in the James Bay region of Quebec, Canada.
Day 1 – It seems like we just got home, found great, committed homes for the five dogs we brought south for re-homing, reorganized supplies, but it’s already time to hit the road again. The van is repacked and ready, the road map is out and the Northern Dogs Team is headed back to James Bay, this time to take veterinary services to under-serviced communities along the coast. Essentials for a 22 hour road trip include an interesting audio book, good tunes and a compatible copilot. Jessica, our humane educator from Animals Teach, is that person on this trip. She’s super supportive of Northern Dogs, she’s super comfortable in the classroom and with our overlapping interests we’ll have no trouble filling the 10 or so hours of driving we have ahead of us today. Reaching the coastal communities means hugging the east side of James Bay via the James Bay highway – these communities are farther away than the last ones. We are starting in the northern-most community which is 100 km west of the main highway just below Radisson (which is where the highway ends). From this community, we will travel south back along the James Bay highway to set up clinics in four other communities, each of which is at least 100 km off the highway. Like the last set of clinics, we have all we need for a fully functioning veterinary clinic in the back of one van. Crystal is once again traveling from Ottawa, meeting us for our first overnight in Mattagami.
Day 2 – We made it to our destination last night in just over 11 hours. Along the way, Jessica and I were able to talk through possible improvements to the in-class presentations that she will take to as many classes as possible in each community. She and I have developed this specific Northern Dogs presentation to be relevant to the community kids and the needs of the communities. Jessica will talk about the fact that dogs and people have the same needs; dogs and people have similar feelings; how to read dog body language; when to leave dogs alone; and how to act around and touch dogs. Jessica has so much classroom experience after having designed and presented different programs to more than 450 classrooms per year that I don’t hesitate to leave the classrooms to her.
The James Bay highway stretches north for hours (with no cell phone access or stop offs) and while we are always keeping our eyes peeled for wildlife, so far there have been no exciting bear sightings and the caribou have long since migrated. However, by the number of porcupines, we’re obviously just in time to catch them feasting on the new growth at the side of the road. So far, we’ve seen eight porcupines… even though they amble (even at top speed), I’ve failed to capture any of them on film. Crystal has just figured out that the small, red diamond-shaped signs you see along the roadside are road bumps warnings. One diamond means small bump, two means bigger bump and three means the biggest bump. However, sometimes the road feels like nothing but bumps so the signs quickly become irrelevant! As we get closer to the only service station along the highway (kilometer 381), the trees are getting shorter and thinner… it’s like spring in reverse as you head further north -- the leaves turn into buds and the tamarack revert to the brown of winter. The whole time I’m driving, I’m going over inventory in my head, mulling over logistics, and trying to gauge how many animals will visit us in each community.
Day 3: Someone in the community called me at the office last week, very upset about a dog in her community with a deeply embedded collar. So when we arrived last night, we stashed our belongings in the dorm-like hotel room and immediately set out to find him. The dog has been spotted multiple times but no one can catch him. I’m optimistic and have brought along sedative that we can put in dog food if we get lucky enough to get near him. I had contacted the local police after hearing about the dog and they too knew of him… one of the officers had even chased him but running through town is a river flanked by forest with tons of hiding spots. Unfortunately, if we don’t catch this one while we’re here, he will most likely die from infection, or be killed because he looks “sick”. Either way, we are here and it’s unnecessary for him to suffer anymore. If we can find and fix him, there is no reason for him to die. We drove up and down. Nothing. Unlike past years, we didn’t see lots of dogs either. This community is the largest (as well as the farthest) and yet it’s pretty dog quiet. After about an hour of searching, we called it quits and headed to our room.
But today is a new day and I really hope to luck out by finding the dog. I’m also looking forward to seeing Isis, a totally unsocialized puppy from last year who was adopted by one of the local police officers. Last year, he happened to be working during the night when she was in a crate recovering from her spay. She made so much noise that he found her and ended up spending a large part of the night with her. This particular officer had worked with difficult dogs in the past and while I was skeptical that anyone could meet Isis’ needs, from what I hear, she’s grown into an awesome dog. Anyone who saw that wild thing on intake last year can’t wait to see the new and improved version!
The remaining team members arrived by plane at noon – MJ, Martine and Denise are back for round two, plus two vet techs who are new to the program. The team is comfortable and competent working in these conditions and having such an efficient team, most of who already know each other, makes everything run more smoothly. While they readied the equipment in the surgery trailer, I received a call from a community member who was concerned about a dog near her trailer. She wanted us to come and have a look at the dog and if need be, take her back to the clinic for treatment. Denise and I headed out with leashes and biscuits to find the cluster of houses. The dog was a yellow lab, reddish in colour with a blocky face. Even from a distance we could see that her hind leg was badly swollen and that it caused her to limp. When we approached her, she didn’t move away, just looked at us with big, soft brown eyes. When we made a noose and slipped it over her head, Denise was able to take a closer look… it wasn’t just her leg that was swollen but she looked to have either a severe case of mastitis or a large mammary tumour. We gently lifted her into the back of the van and drove carefully back to the clinic where MJ or Martine could have a better look at her. On arrival, Martine palpated her gently and found that the dog’s underbelly was swollen and hard. It was obvious that she was in serious condition, but it struck us all how gentle and uncomplaining she remained even though she was in considerable pain. She gobbled up the biscuits that we fed her and Martine delivered her diagnosis… mammary tumour, perhaps multiple tumours. If we had been in the last community, the one farthest south, we may have been able to get Becca (as she was called by her community caretaker) to a clinic in the south. While there is no guarantee that she would have recovered, I know we all wanted the opportunity to try. As it was, she was too sick to be transported over the next week as we made our way south via the other communities. Becca was euthanized with her caregiver and Crystal at her side.
Day 4: The community clinic schedules work like this. Half day drive from community to community in the morning, clinic set up, surgeries until 6 pm, one full day clinic the next day, clinic take down, overnight in the same community, drive to next community in the morning. Staying over that last night means that we can work late if need be on the last day and if any complications should arise, we are still in that community and easily available. Right now, we are on the full day of the schedule and I’m still hoping to find and capture the dog with the embedded collar. Isis has come by the clinic for her vaccinations and those of us who saw her last year are totally blown away by her transformation. She isn’t a particularly large dog (about 50 pounds) and unbelievably, she has turned from a spitfire into a quiet, submissive girl. This is one of those happy endings that could have turned out very differently had she not had the commitment and experience of her owner. As we are all fawning over Isis, a call comes in from an officer – the dog with the embedded collar has been spotted! Denise and I climb into Evan’s truck and head to the area where the dog was last reported. Today is the last day to find and help this dog. If we can’t find and catch him, this is it. We drove every street twice, we looked up and down and in and out but in all honestly, that dog knows more hiding places than we would ever think to look. As we head back to the clinic, I admit I’m beginning to lose hope. I tell Evan to keep his eyes open and if he can catch this dog, make sure to call us… no matter where we are. He drops us back at the firehall where Angel, Cheech-sh, Ginger, Puppy, Duffy, Poopsy, Nellie, Wally I, Wally II, Jason and Buck are in varying stages of recovery post surgery. While they recover, I source dinner. Believe it or not, finding food can be one of the most difficult and frustrating tasks. Restaurants, if they exist, do not have consistent hours so you find yourself listening to the radio to hear who’s selling dinner out of their house. This is how you can find Chinese food, pizza, spaghetti, or lasagna in James Bay. Tonight we end up with pizza, clinic take down, and a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow’s drive is five hours for me and my team, three hours for Crystal’s team. This is our first year of splitting the team and servicing two smaller communities simultaneously.
Day 5: This is the day we will determine if splitting the clinics is a good way to move forward. These next two communities are small and the community contacts are not as proficient in advertising and organizing as those in the other communities. Instead of having a full team on site with only a few surgeries to complete, we will have one vet and one tech in each community, meeting up again in Nemaska. We were back in the firehall in ‘our’ community but I learned from Crystal that they had been set up in the old medical clinic which was perfectly outfitted and had a stunning view of the lake just across the way. Penny, a dog with a shattered femur, was taken south last year for extensive surgery and then rehomed. Denise had returned to the community with photos of the dog to show the previous owner, who cared for the dog but couldn’t afford the surgery. While the clinic set up was fantastic, Crystal’s team found two husky type dogs living in small, elevated wire cages just behind it. Irresponsible and cruel treatment of dogs occurs everywhere in the world, but it takes a toll on team morale when we see it. Crystal and Denise worked to find the owners, or someone who would release the dogs. This is a priority and we’ll continue to work on it from home.
In our community, I was pre-planning in my head; if there not many people came to the clinic, we would leave the following day at noon and get to the next community for early set up. Crystal and her team could stay in their community if they were busy and meet us at the next community either late the next night or the following morning. My hope was that we get the people, but if not, I wanted to get moving to the communities that do the work to prepare their community for our arrival. The people started coming even before we were set up. Lexis was a 9 month old tri coloured husky cross in for a spay. Cinquant was a black and buff husky cross to be neutered. Hunter was a big, 2 year old yellow lab who ended up recovering under Martine’s feet as she continued surgeries on Weepshin and Connor. In between, Crystal called to say it was really quiet in the community they were in. We decided to keep in touch and again, plan to move out if things didn’t pick up. We finished up the surgeries, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and hit the sack.
Day 6: Near the end of the day yesterday, an elder brought in a 6 month old lab cross who had been hit by a car. She was hoping that it was nothing serious but it turned out that the pup had a broken femur which needed surgical repair. The mobile clinics are not set up for that kind of surgery but I told her to think about sending Abby down south with us where we would have her fixed, and then find a way to get the pup back to her. When I touched base in the morning, she said she was concerned that she wouldn’t get Abby back, but she wanted her to have the surgery. As Martine was neutering the last dog, a big yellow lab, Abby arrived at the clinic with a leash and a bag of her own food and we put her in the crate in the back of the van. Her owner was obviously torn between not wanting to lose the dog, and wanting the dog to have appropriate care. I wasn’t sure how we would organize getting Abby back but figured I could use volunteer drivers or find someone who was already planning to head in the general direction. When I had another community member ask me to take their dog south, it dawned on me that rather than jostle Abby and her broken leg over 200 km of dirt roads, she could stay with her owner and I would double back on our way home to pick up the two dogs. This would take an extra 6 hours but it made more sense.
As I was talking on the phone, the last surgery had recovered enough to stand up, wobble, weave from side to side and then gather enough momentum to throw himself toward the door, out of the firehall and around the corner. At the last second, I was able to grab him and attach him to a trailer where he had dropped. It’s amazing how fast they can shuffle even though they are still sedated. Once he was picked up by his owner, we finished loading the van, dropped Abby back at her house, and headed to Nemaska, a trip of about 3.5 hours.
Day 7: Finally we saw some big wildlife! The road that leads to Nemaska is about 3 hours along a dirt road east off the James Bay highway. As we headed in yesterday afternoon, we saw a black bear off to the side of the road. She sauntered through the spruce trees, looking back at us until she was a speck. Last year there were hundreds of caribou moving along and across this same road when we were enroute but that was April. Nemaska is my favourite community -- the people are friendly and active, and the community is the only one with trees interspersed among the houses. Every time I say it’s beautiful, I’m told that it’s nothing compared to the original site before the community was moved to the present day site by the government. Nemaska just has a really good vibe and I was glad to be back. We set up the surgery in the board room/kitchen of the firehall and prepared for surgeries. It’s the annual fishing derby (bass) but people still came as soon as the doors opened and by the end of the afternoon, we had recovered, or were in the process of recovering, 24 dogs. Those who were still recovering were fanned out on towels, loosely leashed to whatever we could find in case they decided to leave on their own accord. The dogs go home the same day as their surgery and each one must be able to go into the house or onto a porch where they can finish their recovery. Puppies recover so quickly and with so few noticeable effects (even the surgery openings are tiny) while some dogs will sleep and sleep and sleep. We were still at the clinic at 9 pm eating take out and recovering the final two dogs. Five, six week old female lab pups were brought in for spay surgery. The males had already been rehomed and the owners were taking responsibility for the remaining pups by having them sterilized before they went to their homes. Imagine if each of these females lived to adulthood and had one, if not two litters by the time we returned next year. That’s a lot of puppies having puppies in just twelve months!
Day 8: Breakfast at 8, surgeries starting at 8:30. I expect that we did the brunt of the surgeries yesterday and that we can leave early and make it to Waskaganish by nightfall. However, we’re happy to stay here all day if the need is here. As it turns out, eleven animals were brought in ranging in age from 2 months to 3 years. Bruno was the last dog to be brought in and every one of us was smitten. However, the feeling wasn’t mutual. When you are dealing with a dog who is a flight risk, you always use a slip collar. A dog can shimmy out of a collar, but not out of a noose. Until Bruno. Somehow he managed to loosen, pull and escape before we could tighten. The last I saw of him, he was running back to his house and then miraculously, there he was again, coming in the back of the firehall and willing to forgive us all for the low price of one dog biscuit. Denise came out and sedated him as quickly as possible so that we didn’t lose him again and though he fought it, the sedative always wins. His current owner is actually the aunt of the original owner, a young girl who didn’t know how to take care of a dog. Unfortunately, many dogs are owned by young kids who have no idea what it means to care for a dog. Because everyone loves a cute puppy, puppies find homes easily (and often with young children), but when they become dogs (even if they are chronologically still pups), they are no longer cute and can end up abandoned. We are working on changing attitudes but it takes a long time.
Estimated time of departure, 4 pm. Estimated time of arrival in Waskaganish, 7:30 pm.
Day 9: When Crystal arrived last night, she did an informal, drive by dog count and found just over 70 dogs. She also located our contact and worked out details for the morning. The firehall has seen better days but this year, there is a fresh coat of paint and it looks likes it’s been cleaned since we were there last year. As per usual, the doors open and the dogs come. Two of the first patients are a bit of a surprise because both male owners initially declined the neuter surgery. Reasons for declining a neuter include it’s not fair, it’s not natural, it will change his personality, he won’t be a good hunter and the ever consistent, I just don’t want to. I can say with certainty that very rarely does anyone decline a spay for the same reasons. If anyone does decline a spay, it’s because they want the puppies, not because they feel for the female. But it’s different with males and their male owners. When you neuter a male dog, it will not affect his hunting except to possibly make him more focused on the task at hand and not on the females. Also, neutered males do not roam to find mates, they do not beat up on females for access to them, and they don’t fight for mates. Bottom line for a male owner, however, is that if he thinks of himself when you ask him to neuter his male dog, he won’t do it. The first two surgeries were male dogs, owned by men and the first answers were no. So it was a pleasant surprise when somehow what we said resonated with them and they decided to go ahead. Two black lab youngsters -- easy surgery, quick recovery.
Then came the interesting case of the day. Blackie, a two year old black lab, was brought in with an infected head wound just above and between her eyes. The wound was infecting and oozing, and the owners said that she had come home in February with a bump the size of a golf ball which later exploded -- from then on, it had been oozing but she had not shown any other negative side affects. She was to be spayed so MJ would complete that surgery before looking at her head wound. When MJ called me into surgery, she had cleaned the wound, cut away the skin and found a hole beneath that was at least an inch deep. Hypothesis… piece of bone, blunt trauma of foreign body, or bullet, except that a bullet should not create such infection. She probed inside the wound but couldn’t find anything. She flushed the wound repeatedly and said that she could do nothing more at this point than suture the skin and put Blackie on antibiotics. Some owners are particularly caring and we were confident that these owners would provide the appropriate aftercare. Blackie stayed to recover for most of the day and I will be calling them to check on her progress when we get back home in a few days.
Day 10: Today started when a gentleman came in to ask for help with his whelping dog. He explained that she had started giving birth the previous night but was unable to pass her pups and was in obvious pain. She was a smallish, young dog and this was her first litter. She had also been hit by a car earlier in the year, perhaps affecting her ability to whelp normally. Denise accompanied the owner back to his house to assess the situation but when the dog heard Denise’s strange voice, she moved under the deck. Denise returned to the clinic and told the owner to call if things didn’t progress. Next report was that the young mother-to-be had dropped a puppy on the lawn, but sadly, it was dead. She then moved back to the deck and her owner was concerned that she was exhausted and in pain. Denise and I drove over and there she was, under the front stairs, whimpering. She wouldn’t come out and Denise couldn’t get to her. At this point, the owner pulled the front steps off the deck and Denise bundled the girl into a blanket -- we headed back to the clinic where MJ worked on the young dog for 20 minutes, trying to free the next pup. She pulled me inside to ask if the pups could be saved, would the owner bottle feed them. But it was too late. The process had been too difficult and the remaining two pups were stillborn. The dog was spayed, hooked up to fluids and laid out on an air mattress to recover comfortably. We told the owner to come back for his dog in a couple of hours, which he did, but we sent him home to allow her more recovery time. He came back every hour as she reclined on the mattress, checking that she was okay.
The whole team was leaving on the 3 pm flight to Montreal and we were packing up around the recovering mother, at the same time as owners continued to bring their dogs in for last minute vaccines. We had to pack the vans in a way to accommodate another young mother and her litter of pups which were taking south to rehome. Drop the vets and techs at the airport, sweep, mop, load the vans and breathe a sigh of tired relief that another successful Northern Dogs has come to an end. Early to bed, looking forward to getting an early start and making the 12 hour journey home! The only fly in the ointment is that the pups are very scared and will need lots of work at home. Thankfully, we have 12 hours to assess our options….