Feb 27, 2013 2:44 PM by Victoria Fregoso - MTN News
CROW AGENCY - Every tribe is different, with its own history, traditions and beliefs. But as you drive the streets of one Indian reservation to the next, the sight of wild dogs remains consistent. They're known as "rez dogs."
"The dogs are free. And they're free to live in the manner that they choose. For many people these days, they might wish that they had as much liberty as the dogs do," Reno Charette, Director of American Indian Outreach at MSU-Billings, said.
Before the use of horses, tribes in the Great Plains Region relied heavily on dogs.
"The dogs were originally the animal that helped people move their things on a travois that dogs pulled," Charette said.
Some say the status of rez dogs has shifted from a highly honored companion to neglected animals.
Mark Francis, a veterinarian at the Animal Care Center in Hardin, said, "It would amaze you the number of dogs that are out there that aren't pets. They're just out there running. And they're not being cared for."
The average lifespan of a rez dog is just two years, and the dogs do what is necessary to survive.
"The dumps are a big problem. They'll forage in the dumps. They've passed plastic sacks and things that are not good for dogs," Brooke Gondara of the Lame Deer Critter Committee said.
In some more extreme scenarios, dogs have attacked humans. According to Indian Health Services, over the past 18 years, there is an average of 35 people bitten by dogs on the Crow Reservation every year. That number more than doubles for the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, with an average of 72 people per year.
Having the mentality of a wild animal, the dogs form packs and claim their territory.
"A lot of them just never actually had homes. And it just takes a couple of females having a couple of litters that are all fending for themselves and they have more litters. It just gets out of hand," Sheri Lee of Rez Dog Rescue said.
Veterinarians and rescue groups consistently see cases of rabies, ringworm and mange, and over the past three months, distemper has made its way to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow Reservations.
"I mean, it's just wiped out total litters of puppies and mothers. And I think it's taken down the dog population probably overall," Gondara said.
"There's been a lot of dogs that they've rescued that they've brought in that have either ended up dying or having to be put to sleep because they get so bad from the distemper. And, you know, those diseases are preventable," Francis said.
Ideally, rescue groups would like to restore the status that dogs once held with the tribe.
"There is a sacredness and stories and beliefs about dogs in our culture and to go back to that as much as possible as far as shifting the mentality," Gondara said.
She says it's a shift that must happen within the community.