Rez dogs

Leupp, AZ – Anyone who has been to northern Arizona has probably encountered a reservation dog. "Rez dogs," as they're known, are their own breed really, both in looks and in personality. And the rural areas of northern Arizona are overpopulated with them. Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales stopped by the Plateauland Mobile Veterinary Clinic in Leupp to bring us this story.

AMBY: RV generator, whimpering dogs

Bear has lived a pretty promiscuous life up until today. Many of the dogs in Leupp share Bear's sweet brown eyes, shaggy black coat and floppy ears because he's fathered countless puppies. He's made the lot where the mobile clinic is parked his bachelor pad. He's been fed by a good samaritan who decided today was the end of his Don Juan days.

SFX: shaving hair buzz

Right now Bear's in a vulnerable position. He's lying stretched out on an operating table, while a vet technician shaves him.

Sherie Jones is Plateauland's education coordinator.

JONES: This morning he was just doing his daily rounds. Now he's in here being neutered.

SFX: Door whips open

JONES: How can I help you?

Outside the converted RV local mom Jennifer Patterson waits in the whipping wind. She cradles a teddy bear looking dog like a baby. Her family found a whole litter on the side of a dirt road but they could only afford to save one. She says this puppy who they call Willy chose them.

PATTERSON: We can't just go and buy a dog. It's kind of like they gotta choose. Then they become part of our family. We can't go into town and just get a dog it's our tradition not to. If we find a dog it's really lucky to us it gives us good luck. They become our protectors.

Willy gets his vaccines at the mobile clinic but Patterson says she's going to wait to neuter him. Her husband's not keen on the idea.

PATTERSON: My husband doesn't believe in it. They're animals you can't hurt them but I'm like look at all these dogs that's how we're going to stop the population that way there won't be so many dogs.

Many Navajo people believe in a dog's free will; a dog cannot be owned. So the reservation is overrun with strays. With so many wild dogs hundreds of bite cases are reported each year. Animal control has very limited resources on the reservation so many of the dogs are euthanized.

Sherie Jones says a lot of people understand it's a problem but they can't afford to spay or neuter.

JONES: I'm lucky if they have enough money to pay for vaccines so I put the idea in their head that this is something that needs to be done so maybe next time or they'll call the center and get it done.

SFX: Dogs barking

The Second Chance Center for Animals sits just off the Navajo Nation east of Flagstaff. About 70 percent of the dogs come from the reservation.

SIMON: This is Smokie. And this is Gizzy and that's Stolie.

Monika Simon and Charlotte Peterson show off the extensive facility.

(Fade out barking.)

The shelter has a large staff to rehabilitate the animals that come in injured or sick and get them in shape for adoption. Peterson points to a dry erase board that lists all of the animals at the center and what diet requirements each one has.

PETERSON: We're usually full at all times and when cages become empty we fill them. There's a constant need coming off the reservation we have everything from truck drivers to private rescue organizations that bring us dogs.

Second Chance has room for about 150 dogs and about 90 cats.

PETERSON: People have to understand that spaying and neutering then just letting them go there's no one feeding them there's no one taking care of them so you're not really helping the problem. The biggest thing we can do is education and letting them know if they spay and neuter their own dogs they're not going to have the strays running around.

Just about everyone who works at Second Chance owns at least one rez dog. Monika Simon says she adopted her dog Annabelle from the shelter.

SIMON: They have so much to teach us. Considering what they've been through the fact that they're still so trusting and willing to give humans a chance. Can't ask for much more than that.

SFX: wind blowing thru the trees

If they're lucky the dogs at the shelter will end up at a home like this one with a yard that backs up to the forest and hundreds of trails to explore.

WILLIAMS: C'mon, Cora! (clapping) C'mon!

Mary Williams admits she's one of those people whose dogs are like her children. She has two dogs, Jack and Cora. Cora's a rez dog. About three years ago a nurse on the Hopi Reservation found Cora and eight of her brothers and sisters all orphaned at three months old.

WILLIAMS: The story I heard is this woman went out every day for two weeks with food and water and was able to capture all of them. And they were all just living out there on their own little wild pack of young puppies. And we found out about three days later she had two ears full of ticks probably 30 ticks.

Cora arrived with a few other quirks.

WILLIAMS: She is a great hunter. I think it's from living on her own as a youngster. She catches birds, she'll chase butterflies grasshoppers so I think that's what she was living off of. She can jump straight up in the air probably five feet. When she first came she was very fearful of men. She's very loyal. She's protective but she's insecure at the same time.

Williams realizes she has provided a home for one lucky rez dog. But there are still thousands more.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales.