A non-profit organization on the Pine Ridge Reservation was founded with two primary goals in mind: care for the animals on the home lands of the Oglala Lakota, especially dogs…and reduce the population of “man’s best friend” that wander through the reservation’s villages.
Today we visit with a group of women who are doing their best to achieve both those goals – one “sunka” dog at a time.
It’s a cold and snowy early Spring morning outside as Erica Monaco begins to neuter Bull, a shepherd/collie mix inside the Oglala Community Center. The young woman is among the contracted and volunteer veterinarians who perform some 1500 similar operations annually as part of the Lakota Animal Health Care Project’s spay and neuter clinics.
Virginia Ravndal founded the project in 2007 as a result of there being no veterinary services on the 2 million-acre Pine Ridge Reservation. The 501C3 non-profit, says Ravndal, is like no other organization on any tribal land in the country…or off tribal land for that matter.
“What makes it unique is that it’s a community-based effort to provide basic animal care through the training and certification of tribal members,” Ravndal explains. “Who are trained and then certified to do distemper-parvo vaccinations, mange. flea, tick, worm…all the basic animal health care.”
For dogs who live on the reservation, life can be very good. And, Ravndal adds, all those dogs one might see roaming around aren’t necessarily strays.
“The dogs here are usually free-roaming dogs,” observes Ravndal. “That does not mean they’re strays. They all know exactly who their family is. They sleep at their house every night. They usually do not sleep inside the house. They sleep under the steps or outside. But they know exactly where they live. And they’re happy. They have their own relatives here. They have their people relatives. They have their dog relatives. And that’s the best life that a dog can have…to be free-roaming.”
Of course, there is a down side to rez life for a dog, as well.
“We have a lot of freezing during the wintertime…especially of the younger pups,” comments Ravndal. “We have a lot of disease. We have distemper and parvo. And that’s why it’s so important through the community-based basic animal health care program that the Lakota animals care givers are doing these distemper-parvo vaccinations. And we have seen a decrease in distemper and parvo in the communities where they’re most active.”
Having volunteers who are community-based is an asset, notes Ravndal.
“Because people in their communities know them,” Ravndal offers. “They trust them. It’s a source of pride when they go through the training and then they pass the examinations. And then they go around in their own communities and they provide this basic animal health care.”
Community-based volunteers also know which dogs belong to a family and which are strays.
There are 3 levels of certification developed by the Lakota Animal Health Care Project. At the basic level – or backpacker, volunteers are trained to identify what’s wrong with a dog and estimate its weight – for medicinal purposes. Once qualified, backpackers can administer medication for basic healthcare needs such as fleas, ticks, worms, ringworm and mange. Although they usually travel on foot through their communities carrying their medical supplies in their backpacks, Connie Ten Fingers goes wherever she’s need on the reservation…and there’s a simple reason why.
“For the love of the dogs,” explains Ten Fingers. “You know, you see a lot of the dogs going around here and they’re…you know, somebody has to speak for them.”
Connie Ten Fingers is able to do that through the Lakota Animal Health Care Project.
Working at the ranger level. Techla Two Bears takes care of dogs in the Batesland and Allen communities. She’s trained in everything at the backpacker level, and is also qualified to administer distemper/parvo vaccinations.
“I…love doing this,” says Two Bears. “It’s in my heart and I love all sorts of creations of God that he provides for us. And not only the dogs, but the horses and the cats and the wild animals that are out there.”
The highest qualification for volunteers is at the fully-certified animal care giver level, where they’re permitted to administer sedation and deal with more complicated procedures like removing porcupine quills. Ouch.
With an estimated population of dogs on the Pine Ridge Reservation that may be as high as 25,000, Virginia Ravndal says the spay and neuter clinics are vital. The Lakota Animal Health Care Project also partners with shelters in Colorado, Wyoming and Minnesota to provide good homes for those dogs that are strays or can’t be cared for by their families.
Long before the horse was a part of the Lakota culture, the dog…or “sunka”…played a vital role in its community It pulled travois loaded down with family and camp supplies and assisted in hunting. Most importantly, it helped guard the women and children of the village - a job it maintained into modern times.