CASS LAKE (Minnesota) — Animal neglect was a major problem at the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota. Basic services such as sterilization were out of reach for many because of poverty and remoteness. This made it possible for stray dogs to sometimes halt traffic on the main highway.
Today, stray animals are very rare. Children are helping their parents in animal rescues. Pet food and supplies are regularly distributed in the community. The first veterinary clinic in the main city, Cass Lake is just one permit away.
This is all due to the years-long, organized effort of many community members to improve animal welfare. These values are deeply rooted in Ojibwe culture and spiritual values about Ojibwe people’s relationships with all living things.
Rick Haaland, who is the community outreach manager for the Leech Lake tribal police, said that “it helps animals, but also brings people up.” “Our pets walk alongside us.”
Ojibwe belief systems and sacred origin stories are centered around animals.
One tradition says that the Creator asked the original man to go on a journey with his wolf, and they became close friends along the way. After they had completed their task, the Creator instructed them to follow separate paths even though they would both be “feared, respected, and misunderstood by those who later joined them on earth.”
The story teaches that dogs are relatives of the wolf and should be considered brothers by today’s Native Americans, even though they are distinct.
Things like promoting pet ownership and providing vet services to the reservation, nestled among trees and lakes, reinforce the Creator’s intention for harmony between humans & animals. Some say this value has diminished over time.
“In the past, we were taught to be grateful for animals. Dogs and cats have always chosen to comfort us and be there for us. Our stories were not told because we were assimilated and fell into extreme poverty. Elaine Fleming said that people forget how important it is to take care of animals. She started saving animals in 2010 after holding a ceremony with drums, prayers and singing for them.
Fleming, an elder of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe and teacher at Leech Lake Tribal College, stated that now, “We’re taking over our culture.”
Nearly 40% of Leech Lake’s residents live in poverty. This makes it difficult to afford routine spaying or neutering and emergency care that can cost hundreds of dollars each.
This meant that injured animals were often left behind or would be killed, and litters of kittens and puppies would become unaffordable.
Things began to change about a decade ago when the Twin Cities-based nonprofit Leech Lake Legacy started taking in surrendered animals – more than 9,000 – for adoption elsewhere. They also regularly bring a mobile clinic to the reservation to provide low-cost vet services.
According to Jenny Fitzer, founder of Leech Lake Legacy, the pandemic caused a major setback in care. In particular, spaying and neutering was stopped for several months in 2020. Now it’s time to get things back on track.
She said that she couldn’t think of a time when they’d be able to catch-up. She also mentioned that there are more than 400 animals on her waiting list and may not get fixed for at least a year.
The permanent veterinary clinic will be a major change for Leech Lake. Haaland hopes that construction can begin before the winter deep freeze. It could open in the spring. Funding from national animal welfare organizations and local fundraising is also available. Haaland said that a veterinarian who lives on the reservation could not only perform routine sterilizations, but also treat emergency cases. Currently, it costs $500 to have a doctor come to Cass Lake at night.
He envisages informational screenings in the waiting area, building upon the existing awareness programs that the community has on best practices such as leash and kenneling to protect pets from harm.
Haaland, who has three dogs and one cat, said that “I don’t believe people don’t care.” “It’s education. This is our way out.
Haaland has spent the past year rescuing abandoned animals and transporting injured animals to distant veterinaries. He drove 27,000 miles on the van he bought thanks to a grant from Humane Society’s Pets for Life program. The grant, which cost $115,000 in this year’s dollars, has allowed Haaland to continue full-time animal care.
Rachel Thompson, Pets for Life’s national Director, stated that the communities it serves, from Louisiana to Alaska, face the same challenge: the structural inequalities which perpetuate poverty make animal care impossible.
Haaland took photos of a pitbull with hundreds of porcupine quills, which required months of surgery and treatment. Dogs that aren’t properly housed, trained and leashed can be killed by fighting with porcupines.
Haaland discovered the pit bull in his yard, and found garbage all over the place. Haaland offered to help clean up the mess before he returned the dog. The family had done the majority of the work when Haaland arrived with his tribe members one morning.
He said, “They wanted to be better.” “We are proud people with the chance to overcome the traumas of the past,” he said.
Erik Redix is a scholar of Ojibwe History and a member of the Lac Courte Oreilles Band of Ojibwe. He said that animals have spirits just like humans and that their neglect is an affront both to the spiritual imperative of treating all living creatures well and a sign of wider social distress in Native lands.
Leech Lake’s animal care revivals are also a sign of a rejuvenation for Ojibwe society. He added, “to get it back to where it should.”
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