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The End of the Beginning: The First Five Years of Veterinary Services in Baker Lake, Nunavut
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Vet tech Kirstie McKee doing a wellness exam while dog team owner
Sharon Ookowt assists Photo: S. MacIsaac
The End of the Beginning: The First Five Years of
Veterinary Services in Baker Lake, Nunavut
by Sue MacIsaac
A five year pilot project to introduce veterinary services to the hamlet of Baker Lake, Nunavut came to an end this September when the Canadian Animal Assistance Team (CAAT) completed its volunteer work at the 5th annual Baker Lake Animal Wellness Clinic. It has been an exciting five years of learning and growth for all involved – CAAT, the community and the community based animal welfare group, The Buddy Fund.
When the first animal wellness clinic opened in 2009 it was the first time a veterinary team had ever been to Baker Lake, a fly-in Inuit community of 1800 people, about 1700 km due north of Winnipeg. The animal population in the hamlet is a real mixture of a few brave cats, non-working house dog pets, working Alaskan sled dog teams and a number of what could be described as Baker Lake “landrace” Canadian Inuit dogs. They are smaller, and less “square” in their overall proportions than their eastern arctic cousins, but a true aboriginal working dog that is completely adapted to performing and surviving in an arctic environment.
Before the opening of the first clinic in Baker Lake, some animal owners had prior interactions with veterinary services from travel or living in the south or flying dogs out to the vet in Winnipeg or Yellowknife. But this was the first time that the entire community could access veterinary services and decide if this was something they wanted to continue to invest in for both the dogs and community health as a whole. We began to move forward on the faith that this was something that the community wanted and would support.
Margaret Amaruq and her beautiful Baker Lake CID
with Sue MacIsaac photo: S. MacIsaac
The first clinic was a little bit hectic but at the end the team of three vets and six techs and assistants had sterilized 82 cats and dogs, vaccinated 175 and visited every dog team in town. The most outstanding thing about this clinic were the questions. People dropped in to watch and ask about everything from how to trim nails to “Why are you here?”. Because this was the first clinic ever in the community, a great deal of effort was put into education and access to information to help people understand what the clinic was all about. To kick things off, two members of CAAT and two Buddy Fund members hosted an ice-breaker radio phone-in show the first night of the clinic to introduce the vet team and give people a chance to ask questions about the vet team, animal diseases and anything else they wanted know. There were questions on a variety of topics and in particular about rabies in wild animals especially caribou. Daily messages went out on the radio to tell people they could drop in to watch surgery or ask questions at any time. During the rest of the nine-day clinic, the team rounded out its education program with school visits about dog bite prevention and a vaccine presentation for dog team owners. The Buddy Fund also made daily radio announcements about clinic hours and booking appointments and made sure that all the brochures and clinic forms were translated into Inuktitut. A translator was available at all times and there were a few translation challenges because there are no direct translations for special veterinary terms like spay and neuter. A caribou feast and games at the community hall capped off the end of the clinic and gave the whole community a chance to come out and greet the team.
Each year since then the clinic has grown, The Buddy Fund has grown and the community has grown into using veterinary services. There has been a visible shift in the community from wanting to know what the clinic is about, to recognizing how it can be harnessed to benefit both the health of the dogs and the community. Some people in the community have commented that nuisance loose dogs should be spayed or neutered so that they don’t create unwanted litters. One dog team owner commented that he is happy that people are spaying and neutering their dogs because he doesn’t want non-husky dogs randomly breeding with his dog team. He doesn’t want mutt litters that can’t survive outside or work on his team. There has been a demand for de-wormers and vaccines after CAAT leaves and there have been no reported outbreaks of illnesses that sound like parvovirus among vaccinated team dogs in the last 3 to 4 years. Both the vet team and dog team owners have noted that the sterilized dogs keep more weight on, which is a good thing in the extreme cold. People now anticipate the arrival of the vet team in the fall and look forward to being able to use its services. I think its important to note that a factor in the success of the past five years is that the community was already progressive in its handling of dog issues which is not the case in all northern communities. Loose or aggressive dogs are a safety issue that Baker Lake takes seriously, thus the community has generally been very cooperative with keeping dogs tied up and under control so I think that measures to reduce the dog population and control diseases like rabies are recognized by many as positive additions to the management of dog issues in the hamlet in general.
The Buddy Fund has expanded its role in the community since the first visit. It continues to fundraise and prepare the community for the annual vet team visit but has branched out to building dog houses, distributing free dog food to animal owners who need it, distributing chain, clips and collars and sending sick animals to vet clinics in Winnipeg when the veterinary team is not in town. All of their services are provided free of charge. The community sees them as an organization that can assist with many dog issues in the hamlet including advocating for better basic standards of animal care and the handling of dog issues by the hamlet.
This year’s clinic closed with 22 sterilization surgeries and 241 vaccines for both cats and dogs, the third year in a trend of decreasing need for sterilizations and an increase in vaccinations. The vet team kept up its school visits and has continued to learn about how to work with the community, adopting some interesting best practices such as door-to-door vaccines, which increases community interaction and the number of vaccines administered. Although exact numbers and percentages of animals sterilized are not known and are hard to know because of the often short life span of northern dogs, the clinics have made a significant dent in the number of sterilized animals in the community and reduced the number of unwanted animals. One of the best partnerships of the clinic has been the use of free rabies vaccines from the Government of Nunavut’s rabies vaccine program and, because the vaccines are administered by a vet, they will hold their integrity in the event of a bite incident.
CAAT has been a great asset in moving through the first five years of veterinary services in Baker Lake because they understand that introducing veterinary services for the first time, especially in a remote aboriginal community where the relationship between humans and dogs may be different, is a process that involves time, cultural awareness and education. People arrive (or don’t arrive) at the clinic with varying levels of knowledge and may need the opportunity to not only pick up information but also to observe first hand the benefits of the services in the health of animals over time before choosing to participate. Whether they choose to participate or not, it has to be an informed choice and a respected choice for the clinic to be successful in the long run.
CAAT’s goal in working in Baker Lake over the past five years was to help the community reach a sustainable level for the dog population, a level that greatly reduced the number of litters being born, the number of unwanted dogs, etc. A level where one veterinarian and a technician or two could come once a year and perform the sterilization surgeries is needed to continue at that level. The goal of providing a humane education program in the schools and teaching dog bite prevention and leaving materials for the schools to continue the work if they choose, was also reached. CAAT’s work is just the beginning of the establishment of a long-term annual clinic in the community. There is still a lot to do, more that could be done to improve the reach of veterinary services in Baker Lake, but The Buddy Fund and the next vet team can work with a smaller and hopefully healthier population of dogs and their owners who are more knowledgeable about the benefits of veterinary services for both their animals and the community.
Sue MacIsaac was a resident of Baker Lake Nunavut from 2000 to 2010. She spent two winters dog handling and mushing for small dog team owners in the Thunder Bay, Ontario area before moving to Baker Lake and bringing her interest in working dogs with her. She contacted the Canadian Animal Assistance Team (CAAT) in 2008 as her awareness of the need for veterinary services in Baker Lake grew through her interactions with dog team owners and pet owners in the community. She was one of a group of dedicated volunteers who formed The Buddy Fund to bring in CAAT to provide those services and the rest, as they say, is history. She currently works as a library technician in Ottawa but continues to be involved in the Baker Lake Animal Wellness Clinic and maintains an avid interest in northern dog issues.