It was the furthest north I’d ever been. Gorgeous golden birch trees quaking in the wind, husky mix dogs, and MUD. The GAAP-Canada team from Allandale Veterinary Hospital partnered with Northern Spay Neuter Program to bring much-needed veterinary services to the remote indigenous communities of Sachigo Lake First Nation and Gull Bay First Nation in Ontario, Canada. And we were in for an adventure!

In early October 2017 we all met in Toronto and hopped on a small commercial flight to Thunder Bay where we met the Northern Spay Neuter Team to prepare for the week-long campaign. All our equipment packed away in green crates and ready to go, the next day we flew in a small charter airplane a few hours north to Sachigo Lake First Nation, making a few bumpy stops at multiple lakes along the way due to inclement weather.

Sachigo Lake First Nation

Sachigo Lake First Nation is only accessible by airplane during non-winter months (in the winter, truckers navigate the treacherous “ice roads” – aka: frozen rivers and lakes – to bring large shipments into the northern communities). There are currently about 400 people living in Sachigo Lake First Nation, and the homes, buildings, and vehicles were in relatively good condition despite their remote location. All of the dirt roads however had turned to mud because of the recent rain and all the people and animals were covered in mud (the veterinarians as well!). We set up our clinic – which included a reception area, 2 operating tables, and recovery area – in the community’s recreation hall.

In total, we performed 79 spay/neuter operations over 3 days, with the most surgeries performed on the second day. Additionally, we de-wormed/vaccinated 86 dogs. There had never been a veterinarian in Sachigo Lake First Nation, so NONE of the dogs in the community were sterilized (we estimated there to be about 150-200 dogs in total) and we saw a lot of (admittedly adorable) puppies. The vast majority of the dogs brought to the clinic were owned but also let to roam freely in the community. Due to the high cost of food in Sachigo Lake First Nation, the majority of community residents are unable to feed their dogs dog food; instead, the dogs survive off kitchen scraps, trash, and hunting small rodents. Notably, most of the dogs treated and sterilized were 1-3 years of age, leading us to believe that the dogs in Sachigo Lake tend to not survive beyond 4-5 years (they likely die from underweight/starvation, the cold, infections, and wolf attacks).

The veterinary campaign was very well received in Sachigo Lake First Nation, and a large number of community members enthusiastically brought their dogs to the clinic. As described by Virginia Beardy, Executive Secretary of the Band Council who helped organize the campaign, “This past winter the people were worried about the number of dogs that had collected and they were worried about the safety of the community. We started looking into seeing who was available to come up and looking for a clinic…I think the clinic has been well received by the community. I’m happy to see the team here, it’s for the benefit of the community. That’s why I’m really pitching in!”

It was 3 days of very hard work, but our team thoroughly enjoyed the trip to Sachigo Lake First Nation. The community was welcoming and the landscape was breathtakingly beautiful. Did I mention that we were also there during the full moon? Very auspicious! Soon it was time to pack up the clinic and load everything on the small charter airplane to head back to Thunder Bay.

Gull Bay First Nation

We only stayed in Thunder Bay a few hours – just enough time to enjoy a meal and pack up all our equipment and supplies in a trailer to drive a few hours north to Gull Bay First Nation. Because Gull Bay First Nation is located within 3 hours drive from the town of Thunder Bay it feels less isolated and has greater access to consumer goods including fresh groceries. In general we noted a similar standard of living (the houses, buildings and vehicles were in good upkeep) to Sachigo Lake First Nation. Gull Bay First Nation is significantly smaller however, with only about 200 residents. We set up the same clinic – which included a reception area, 2 operating tables, and recovery area – in the community’s recreation hall.

The GAAP-NSNP team had previously provided veterinary services to Gull Bay First Nation in 2016, so this campaign was the second visit to the community. In total, we performed 9 spay/neuter operations and de-wormed/vaccinated 28 over 1.5 days. Seventeen dogs that were sterilized during the 2016 campaign returned to the clinic for physical exams and vaccinations. Largely because of its proximity to the town of Thunder Bay, the dog population differed in Gull Bay First Nation from what we observed in Sachigo Lake First Nation. More than half of the dogs brought to the clinic in Gull Bay First Nation were owned and contained – either inside the house, tied up, or inside an enclosed yard. We also observed a greater number of small breed dogs (e.g., Chihuahua, Shih tzu) who were purchased by residents in Thunder Bay and kept inside their homes. Underweight was less of an issue in Gull Bay First Nation than in Sachigo Lake First Nation, but many of the community members still reported feeding their dogs kitchen scraps instead of dog food due to its cost.

Stephanie Penagin, a community member who brought 5 dogs to the clinic was excited to see the GAAP team return: “It’s made a big difference in the community. People can’t afford pet care. I don’t have income to feed him [her dog Rufus] so this is a big help.” According to Kenneth King, one of the Gull Bay First Nation Band Councilors who was responsible for proposing the clinic to the Chief and Council over the last two years, “There have been big changes since last year and positive changes in general for the community people and the dogs.” Providing the example of his dog Beauty, Kenneth added, “She lives in the community, she likes to roam and stay away from any disease or rabies that might be around.”

The weather was warmer and kinder in beautiful Gull Bay First Nation and on our last night in the community one of the residents – a wonderful woman named Coco who had brought her little dog Bruiser to the clinic – cooked us up a delicious meal of moose meat! After dinner we sat around a campfire with a bunch of the neighbors, sang songs, laughed and watched the yellow moon rising over the lake.

Many First Nations communities in Northern Canada face serious veterinary and public health issues, including large numbers of free-roaming large breed dogs (increasing the risk for animal-human conflicts such as bites/attacks), high prevalence of canine zoonoses, and a complete absence of veterinary care. We believe that the GAAP veterinary campaigns in First Nations communities in Northern Canada are a promising intervention for improving both immediate and long-term animal health and welfare. Furthermore, the community members and leaders have been receptive to the clinics and are amenable to implementing more humane measures for controlling the dog population. There is great potential to make a significant impact in reducing the size and improving the health of the dog populations in the First Nations communities in just a few years time – and of course, enjoying some beautiful landscapes and sharing delicious moose meat with our new friends in the meantime.