Call for communities to do more as N.W.T. SPCA runs out of room

·5 min read

The N.W.T. SPCA animal shelter in Yellowknife is overwhelmed by the number of animals entering its care this year. The growing waitlist has reached 30 dogs.

Stephen Flanagan, the N.W.T. SPCA president, said: "It's a constant struggle, but looking at the year over year stats, it's getting more cumbersome every year.

"We're paying for more vet care, more flights, more of everything every year, and the finances just aren't keeping up with the need that's here."

This past Saturday, the N.W.T. SPCA held a "Dog Jog" fundraising event to help make ends meet. The group also partners with Vets Without Borders to help cover animal care in the territory. But Flanagan says it's not enough.

"In 2021 we had 473 dog intakes, 126 cats, three rabbits and one mouse," said Flanagan. "That was a significant jump from the year before, when we had 399 dogs, 92 cats and one rabbit.

"We don't have the official numbers yet obviously for this year, but it looks like 2022 is going to be the worst year yet."

The majority of those animals weren't spayed or neutered, which meant almost a thousand surgeries had to be performed before they could be adopted out at a fraction of the cost.

"In the past, we used to have an arrangement with shelters down south where they would take our dogs in exchange for their cats, but everyone's jammed full right now."

Indeed, shelters across B.C. and Alberta report being overwhelmed by surrenders and unfixed animals.

Some, including Flanagan, speculate that this may be the result of the spike in impulsive adoptions across North America during the pandemic, and the accompanying wave of regret in the years following.

While some research appears to show the majority of people who adopted during the pandemic have kept their animals, the sheer number of pets that were adopted means that even a relatively small ratio of surrenders is still significant. With adoptions slowing in many areas, shelters are feeling the squeeze.

As the domestic pet population in the North has surged, the territory's dogs and cats are increasingly in a healthcare crisis of their own.

"You know, there's almost 50,000 people living here and just-about everybody has a dog or a cat," said Flanagan.

"We have just a handful of vets. So I have to think we're in one of the most dire situations in Canada in terms of vet care per animal.

"We have a great relationship with Great Slave Animal Hospital in Yellowknife, the University of Calgary comes up every year and does a rotation of clinics in the Sahtu, and Vets Without Borders does the same throughout most of the North, but it's still not enough vet care to cover what's needed."

In other areas, shelters are ramping up campaigns to spread awareness around the importance of spaying and neutering animals to prevent pet populations getting out of control. In the North, Flanagan says it's not that simple.

"I think the issue is just access. People need to get their animals to Yellowknife in order to get them spayed or neutered and that's just not feasible for a lot of folks. So that's probably the bottleneck," he said.

"We run a community spay and neuter program so that if folks from outside Yellowknife can arrange a way for their animal to get here, we will have it spayed or netured, give it all the shots and everything, and send it back, all for $250. Which is an absolute steal at this point. Ideally, if we could get more funding for that program, even start to cover flights, then maybe it wouldn't be such a strain for people financially."

The sheer volume of dogs stranded at the Yellowknife shelter is beginning to have a knock-on impact elsewhere in the Northwest Territories.

On Thursday, the Town of Inuvik said its dog pound had been at capacity for four months. Some dogs, the town said in a press release, had been at the pound – intended to be a short-term facility for lost pets, not a long-term shelter – for more than a quarter of a year.

"The shelters in the south are overwhelmed. They are not intaking any animals from the North," the town told residents.

"In the past week we have had to capture or intake six animals. Today we have responded to four dogs at large in town. We have no more room in the pound. As a result, we cannot take any surrenders at this time.

"We are asking the pet owners in Inuvik to please help us and be responsible, to reduce the number of emergency calls we get and the number of animals we intake into our pound."

Troy Bellefontaine, a Fort Simpson resident and animal welfare volunteer, believes that kind of message from municipalities and shelters isn't getting through.

"They're not setting off the alarm bells because they're trying to be kind," said Bellefontaine of the N.W.T. SPCA's public statements to date.

"But I believe it's at the point where the message has to be more clear: it's not unlimited service.

"When people get pets, they should be prepared for the costs that come with owning a pet. It's not a surprise. And if you can't afford to get your dog fixed, keep it inside."

Bellefontaine believes many communities can do a better job of enforcing pet licensing bylaws that help shelters to return lost dogs.

But most importantly, he says, the N.W.T. SPCA – which has long sought annual core funding from the territorial government – needs more support and recognition for shouldering the burden of a nationwide crisis in a territory with few animal services.

"Let's help the SPCA. Whether that's volunteering, donating... they help us so much," he said.

"The workers must be getting burnt out. I know I am. We've got five dogs someone wants to send out of Nahanni Butte, three in Fort Simpson... this week, I've been helping out with the vet clinic and my phone has just been going off non-stop.

"Trying to keep up with it is a struggle. We as a community have to work together and try to be more responsible for these animals."

Ollie Williams contributed reporting.

Caitrin Pilkington, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Cabin Radio