Companion animal overpopulation is a serious problem in major centres across the globe, from Rome to Istanbul, Toronto to Los Angeles. In remote areas, where even basic veterinary services are scarce to non-existent — and where services for people are also sorely lacking — the problem is often critical.
And yet it’s imminently solvable. Spay and neuter community animals (sometimes referred to as feral or homeless but deserving of a nomenclature update) while ensuring “owned” pets are also fixed and kept indoors. The trick is educating the public about the issue, helping them see how an animal welfare problem is also a people problem, and then providing the tools to make all that work.
That’s the basic (if paradoxically Herculean) goal of Year of the Northern Dog, a campaign spearheaded by the Ontario SPCA and Humane Society in conjunction with more than two dozen conscientious partners such as the Welland, Timmins and Sarnia and District Humane Societies, James Bay Pawsitive Rescue, Grey Bruce Aboriginal Qimmiq Team, Flights for Hope, and multiple others (full list here).
Described as an "evolving initiative that will support programs and raise awareness by providing information and resources for individuals, organizations and communities,” Year of the Northern Dog aims to educate those in Canada’s far north communities about sustainable canine care while coordinating essential services like spay/neuter clinics, medical aid and airlift to southern communities and, ultimately, adoption.
Some factoids lifted from the Northern Dog website put the barriers to animal care for northern residents into perspective:
-some northern residents must travel up to four hours by road to reach a veterinarian; some must take a plane, then drive to their nearest veterinarian
-the average cost of a small bag of dog food in a remote fly-in community in the north is $90
-there are more dogs in northern communities than there are families available to adopt them
-it takes the same amount of time to drive from Toronto to Disney World in Florida as it does to drive to the Ontario/Manitoba border. And pretty much nobody does that (last statement ours).
Enter rampant and heart-breaking dog growth, where packs of community animals roam free, facing perilous and often tragic living conditions while cranking out puppies who crank out more puppies. But like your grandma used to say, where there’s a will, there’s a way. And Judi Cannon, associate director, Indigenous programs & community outreach with the Ontario SPCA, is determined to abet an army of dedicated partners who also love dogs and want to see them healthy, happy, and homed.
Cannon spoke to Samaritanmag about Year of the Northern Dog from her office Stouffville, Ontario.
Was part of your goal with Year of the Northern Dog to streamline and unify the various orgs working in the far north?
That was definitely one aspect. The other was bringing awareness of the challenges people face in the north with a lack of animal welfare services. So, action, collaboration, sharing best practices and creating efficiencies to better serve the people and animals of those communities.
There’s three identifiable pillars to your work: animal welfare education, animal welfare services, and resources and supplies. With education, the importance of spay/neuter must be central?
Yes. And veterinary services touch everything and that’s what people in the north don’t have access to. So, it is about spay/neuter, vaccines, and the emergencies that come up in every pet’s life.
How does it play out? Do vets from southern cities stage medical and spay/neuter clinics in the north?
Yes, we can grab vets from different clinics right across Ontario to work in mobile clinics in the north, often set up in gymnasiums or community centres. But it’s not just about delivering spay/neuter services or transfers. It’s really about working with communities to figure out their challenges and where they want to go in future, and then delivering those animal welfare services and tools in an appropriate, manageable, well-timed fashion.
For example, if a community has a large number of dogs, it might be appropriate to transfer those community dogs south where we have a better chance of finding homes. Once the population has been reduced to only owned animals, then the mobile team comes in to offer spay/neuter services as well as wellness services and education. That leaves the community in a good spot for maintaining their animal population. Without those services, it’s almost impossible for communities to get a handle on overpopulation.
What happens to the community animals that are transferred south?
The animals come in [to the OSPCA] as open admissions which means any animal, regardless of age or if it’s injured or has behavioural problems, will have a home with us. We have built a ton of programs to make sure there are adoption outlets. Our Meet Your Match program works sort of like online dating for pets and people; figuring out best matches based on specific needs. It’s based on a rather scientific model developed by the ASPCA and uses colour-coding based on our assessment on an animal. When prospective adopters come in, they fill out a questionnaire and then we can make better matches for adoption. We also have a provincial transfer program, so if one of our centres is struggling with an overabundance of cats or dogs, we can help by transferring them to another centre elsewhere in the province. So, there is a huge circle of programs that we have developed.
And the beautiful thing about the northern dogs is their temperament. Because they roam freely, they discover what their community is like, what a cat looks like and what a child looks like. They tend to be highly socialized and very clever. Northern dogs coming into our centre may need help making the transition [indoors] but they are socialized. We actually have wait lists for northern dogs because of that reputation.
How interesting. That’s the exact opposite of homeless cats that, if not socialized within a small window of time — say 12, 14 weeks or so — tend to be forevermore resistant to human interaction…
Is it possible to speak to the scope of this problem via actual numbers?
We have discussed the idea of coming up with a precise number and all we can come up with it huge, which I know is not a number. I can tell you our partners have transferred thousands of dogs among them. The province is just so huge and the communities so spread out… it’s very hard to gauge scope given the geography.
The program is officially called Year of the Northern Dog 2018. Safe to assume the work won’t stop at the end of this year?
I would love to say we could solve this in a year (laughs) but I doubt it. This is about bringing awareness, action, and attention. We hope this program will illuminate the challenges. Canadians don’t typically travel to these northern regions, so they don’t know about this problem. But when people do find out about what we’re doing, they volunteer or donate. A dog is a dog is a dog and your heart will fall in love regardless of where a dog has come from. Different groups have different focuses which is fine; there is more than enough work for all of us for many years to come.
Servicing the north is part of the OSPCA’s mandate. And by creating this program we are working smartly with other groups wanting to assist these communities. It’s easy to feel isolated doing this sort of work, so the cooperation is great. And this isn’t just a dog story. It’s about creating healthier communities for people and for pets. It really is a holistic approach and a moving experience that has changed me forever. And I hear that from other people in this line of work as well.
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