MANITOULIN ISLAND — Walking the streets of Wiikwemkoong Unceded Territory — also known as Wikwemikong, or “Wiky” for short — it’s easy to spot historic buildings, the unique landscape of eastern Manitoulin, and the scenic Georgian Bay.
It’s also impossible not to notice dogs roaming in packs across the land.
The community of about 3,000 people suffers from an overpopulation of dogs, and residents say the problem was even worse a few years ago. Dogs riddled the roadways, front lawns, and backyards of the First Nation. Many of the animals were pets; others were abandoned and uncared for. Either way, residents say the dogs were out of control.
“Dogs were taking sandwiches away from the kids. They would grab the school bag from children and run away. That’s when I thought I should do something about it,” says Jean Flamand, the lead volunteer for the Wiky Rez Dog group, a local dog rescue that says it has found new homes elsewhere in Ontario for more than 700 dogs since 2014.
Because of the conditions in communities like Wiky, the Ontario Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals has declared 2018 the year of the northern dog. The Ontario SPCA is trying to build awareness and address the problem of northern dog overpopulation by holding clinics in communities spanning all of northern Ontario, from east to west and from Parry Sound to the James Bay coast.
“A lot of folks in southern Ontario aren’t aware there is such a large overpopulation issue,” says Judi Cannon, director of partnerships and community outreach at the Ontario SPCA. “This year we are coming together, opening up our collective reach and bringing that awareness.”
There are simply too many dogs and cats for the number of homes in northern communities, Cannon says. “If you do the math,” she says, “it would be overwhelming [how] many dogs would need to go into one home” in order to house all of the animals. “It’s a large, large challenge.”
Cannon says a lack of basic animal services throughout northern Ontario has contributed to the problem. Geography is a major factor. To reach a veterinarian, some people need to get into a plane, then drive a few hours. Dog food, doghouses, and other supplies must be flown in to remote communities, which dramatically increases the cost. Winter weather also causes problems; the temperatures can be harsh on animals — even deadly.
Wiikwemkoong’s chief credits a group of schoolchildren in his community for establishing connections with outside agencies and making progress on the issue.
In 2014, the epidemic of roaming dogs (and dog bites) was at its worst. The council was considering hiring a dog catcher and undertook a limited cull. (Accounts vary on the details, but all agree that the cull involved a small number of dogs.) Chief Duke Peltier says a local Grade 7 class at Wasse-Abin Pontiac School started a project in response. “The students approached our council to find an alternate means to address overpopulation of dogs and cats,” Peltier says.
With the help of their parents and volunteers, the students began creating partnerships with rescue agencies from around the province. The Ontario SPCA was among the handful of organizations that responded to the call. Every year since 2015, the Welland and District SPCA has travelled almost 700 kilometres from the Niagara Region to Wiikwemkoong to provide a mobile spay-and-neuter clinic and other services. In three years, it has performed surgery on 350 dogs and cats, and helped hundreds of other animals by administering vaccinations, de-worming measures, flea control, and other “wellness procedures.” Last year, other First Nations were invited to bring their pets to Wiikwemkoong during the clinic.
“The Welland SPCA has really become part of our family,” says Bruno Henry, another volunteer for the Wiky Rez Dog group.
Beyond health problems, behaviour is often an issue for unruly northern dogs. Cannon says education is critical for helping humans and dogs better interact with each other. She would like to see residents learn to identify dog behaviours — for example, when the animal tucks its tail between its legs, it’s usually afraid.
Having worked as a teacher for almost three decades, Flamand, the dog rescue volunteer, wants to focus on educating her community on dealing with dogs. She hopes to create literature for students and adults to better inform them on the responsibilities of pet ownership. She has already spoken at the local middle school on how the idea of having a pet can differ from the reality of caring for one over the long term. “If I can encourage someone from here to become a veterinarian or a vet technician, that would be great for the community,” she says.
Cannon says there’s also a need in many northern communities to set up licensing programs, and adopt bylaws and regulations for dog ownership. Wiikwemkoong has had some measures in place, but wasn’t enforcing them.
“We’ve had an animal control bylaw here for many years. It is one of the only things on the Indian Act that the federal government would actually allow [First Nations to legislate] as a bylaw,” Peltier says. However, there were never any resources provided to implement the laws, especially on the enforcement side.
Council has scrapped those laws and now Peltier is trying to create new ones. “I would like to see a full registration system where any pet that is in the community is registered, microchipped, spayed, and neutered, and any type of breeding is controlled,” Peltier says. (There’s still no dedicated budget for enforcement.)
Meanwhile, dog rescue agencies are helping by removing animals from the community. Pet Save, a registered charity and animal rescue with a shelter in Lively (a community in Greater Sudbury), has made dog rescue trips to Wiikwemkoong and other First Nation communities over the past 18 years.
“Almost all of them are underweight [and] malnourished,” says Jill Pessot, director of Pet Save.
“A lot of them have injuries — open wounds from dog bites and getting struck by a car.”
Pessot says she’s getting fed up with what she calls “Band-Aid, short-term solutions,” and urges the leadership in northern communities to work with her to put measures in place to solve the problem of dog overpopulation once and for all.
“We’ve rescued thousands and thousands of dogs,” she says. “It’s never-ending. They are suffering.”
This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting northeastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Laurentian University.
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