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Not just a spay and neuter clinic
Sahtu mobile veterinarians treating dogs and creating bonds

Chris Puglia
Northern News Services
Published Saturday, February 22, 2014

Something has changed in the Sahtu region over the past seven years.

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Shayla Kunkel hugs a dog during a clinic in Tulita. Kunkel received the green smock she is wearing from the visiting vets last year and made sure to greet them wearing it when they arrived in the community this month. - photo courtesy of Susan Kutz

For many that change is likely unrecognizable or has come along so slowly, so subtly that it has gone unnoticed.

Susan Kutz has noticed however.

The professor with the University of Calgary's Faculty of Veterinary Services, has been leading a mobile clinic through the Sahtu since 2008.

It's a campaign that grew from humble and almost uncertain beginnings.

In 2007, a number of issues were reported with dogs in the Sahtu. A case of the contagious virus parvo, a case of rabies, one dog shot and another beat to death – to name a few -- all combined to attract attention.

How Kutz and her team at the time reacted to situation is not what one might typically expect and can be attributed to the mobile clinic's ongoing success.

Instead of marching into the Sahtu ready to save the day, they started with a needs assessment and asked the most important question any southern organization coming North can, and should.

“Do people in the Sahtu really want to have vets here? Is there a need for veterinarians to come and visit?” Kutz said was the initial approach they took. “Instead of just coming in and saying we're going to vaccinate, spay and neuter, save the world. We said do you guys want us to come?”

The answers to that question varied.

“Some people didn't know what a vet was, some people did,” said Kutz. “Some people were very concerned about their pets … there were some people who said 'we're not like you white folk, we don't really care about dogs.' And, there were others, who said 'dogs are really important, they can work but they can also be your friends'.”

With those opinions in mind, the University of Calgary held its first mobile clinic in the Sahtu region in 2008.

“In 2009 we came up with a full team that could do surgeries, vaccinations, dewormimg,” said Kutz. “We have come back every year since then, every February or March to all five communities.”

That first year the clinic saw approximately 70 dogs and was the start of an almost cultural shift in the way dogs were being treated in the Sahtu.

“I was invited to the world animal expo to talk about this program and it's a really interesting thing because the world animal expo is mostly rescue operations and our philosophy here as never been to rescue,” said Kutz about the clinic's philosophy. “It has been to provide the support in the community to help control dog health and welfare issues. So, reduce populations, ensure they're vaccinated, reduce worms, reduce disease risk for people but not go and rescue dogs. We don't take dogs out of the communities.

“It's not about saving them and a lot of these dogs are well looked after and loved. Scooping them out of the community, you're stealing people's dogs.”

With those guiding principles, the clinics have grown exponentially over the years and now attract as many as 270 dogs, resulting in a drastic change in animal health.

When the clinic started only between 20 per cent and 35 per cent of animals had been vaccinated, depending on the vaccine. Similarly, only 30 per cent of dogs had been dewormed.

“Our vaccination rate in Colville Lake is 100 per cent some years. It's the best vaccinated community in the country,” Kutz said.

In 2008, many of the dogs the clinic assessed were underweight, some near what would be considered emaciated.

“The scale goes from one to five with three being ideal, five being obese and one being emaciated. The average body condition score we saw when we started was sitting around two, 2.5. We see fat dogs now,” Kutz said.

Sterilizing more animals has also caused the average age of dogs in the Sahtu to rise from 1.8 to well above two and the clinic is seeing more females.

“When you go to the communities, the sex ratio is skewed to males .. female puppies are selectively removed,” Kutz said describing the method of population control commonly used before the clinic arrived. “Spaying means more females are not being removed. Sometimes they will be spayed as young as eight weeks to ensure they are not disposed of,” she added.

Not just for the dogs

Though Sahtu dogs are living longer, healthier and happier lives since the vets started coming to town, people in the community are benefiting too.

Heather Gordon, one of the veterinary students travelling with the clinic, said there have been many benefits to the people living in the community.

From a medical point of view preventing rabies and parasites protect the human population but there is also the effect it has on the bond between dogs and their owners as well as an educational benefit.

“Dogs play very different roles in people's lives here I have seen. People have dogs and keep them similar to the way we do in Calgary but a lot of other people have dogs that are kept outside and they are more sort of a companion than a pet or a family member,” Gordon said. “We're promoting the human animal bond and encouraging people to think of their animals as sentient beings and that they have needs beyond basic food and shelter.”

Fostering career choices

Students who have been involved as volunteers with the clinics have also shown an interest in the sciences.

Kutz points to one young man, Eldon Horassi, in Tulita, who has helped the vets from year one. He is finishing off his Grade 12 and is looking enroll in university to study science.

Horassi, 17, said his experience with the vets gave him a clear insight into the direction he wanted to take his life.

“I just grew an interest to medicine,” said Horassi, adding that when he watched the veterinarians giving needles and dispensing medicine he knew he wanted to pursue a medical career.

His first thought was to become a veterinarian but said his school unfortunately didn't offer the necessary classes to make that possible.

“But it helped me prep for another career I had in mind,” he said.

Horassi, who finished his Grade 12 credits early, plans to attend university next year with design to work as a paramedic.

He also plans to bring that education back to Tulita.

“I want to come back to Tulita and make a difference,” he said.

Horassi said he is grateful for the opportunities the vets gave him, adding he likes to volunteer, but there are few opportunities for that in Tulita.

“If it weren't for the vets, I wouldn't know what I want to be right now,” he said.

Stories such as Horassi's are part of what makes the experiences for the travelling veterinarians rewarding.

“We've been seeing a lot of happy and excited kids. There have been a lot of kids who have said they want to be vets when they grow up and they are going to take better care of their dogs from now on. It's been very rewarding,” said Gordon. “I really enjoyed visiting these communities, I really like Yellowknife. I have actually signed on to come up and help the SPCA in Yellowknife with another spay and neuter clinic in May once I graduate. It's really flipped a light bulb on for me and for other students as well. We've become aware of this space where we can really be helpful.”

Territory wide

Kutz said before the clinic this year, there was a meeting between the travelling vets and the GNWT – Public Health, Municipal and Community Affairs and Environment and Natural Resources.

Through that meeting the idea of a similar type of initiative for every NWT community was discussed.

The logistics would be something that would need to be worked out but Kutz said the idea would be something the territory would take on, separate from the University of Calgary's efforts.

But the university’s initiative is cost effective only because of its nature. The professors are paid their regular salary by the university, the vet students are not paid as the clinic is considered practicum experience and the Sahtu communities are very supportive.

Norman Wells is the only community where service fees are charged. In the other communities it is done on a donation basis, ranging from pocket change to a couple hundred dollars. Community governments pitch in money, there are also donations of food and accommodations.

Kutz said a group of children in Tulita have also raised $1,000 every year by selling lollypops.

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