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Dog Attacks Spur Crackdown on Strays
By Tom Robertson
Minnesota Public Radio
May 28, 2001
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Stray dogs roaming the Cass Lake area and other parts of the Leech Lake Indian Reservation have been a problem for years. But a recent series of vicious dog attacks has prompted tribal and other local authorities to crack down on stray animals.

Cass Lake resident Barb Smith stands on the trail in the Chippewa National Forest where she was attacked by three dogs in April. Hers was the first of three recent dog attacks along the trail. The sign reads, "Warning: Dangerous Dogs at Large!" It was posted by the U.S. Forest Service.
(MPR Photo/Tom Robertson)
THE DOGS, WANDERING UNLEASHED AROUND THE CASS LAKE AREA have been mostly a nuisance. The community took notice, though, when on April 18, a local resident was viciously attacked while jogging on a trail in the Chippewa National Forest, just outside of town. Standing by the trail recently, retired school teacher Barb Smith described how she was alone when three dogs darted out of the woods.

"All of the sudden, the middle dog, the brownish dog, just went at my legs and I felt the puncture right away. Then the other two dogs just followed suit and one by one, they just kept at me, and so I kept turning around. And they just took turns coming at me."

Smith tried to run away, but was tackled by the dogs.

"I knew at that point that I probably wasn't - that this was it, I was going to die," says Smith. "And I don't know if you've ever experienced anything like that, but I just knew this was it, this was the end, and I might as well just let them get me and just lay down and die."

Smith says at that point she got a burst of energy and was able to escape the dogs. She eventually made it to the Cass Lake hospital, where she was treated for multiple wounds. She recently completed a painful series of rabies shots.

Just days later, a pack of eight dogs attacked a U.S. Forest Service employee from Roseville on the same trail. Dogs later attacked two children and an adult riding bikes on the trial. Even before the incidents, Tribal officials at Leech Lake realized they had a dog problem and hired Mark Sekulich, a 20-year veteran animal control officer. He says he was surprised by the dog population on the reservation, which number in the thousands. In a two-block area of one housing tract, he says he counted about 30 dogs.

"We could round up strays all day. If we had the facilities to impound them, we could dispatch dogs running at large. If we were to go totally by the book and crack down, we wouldn't have the capacity to handle all the impounded dogs or carcasses. It's just overwhelming," says Sekulich.

Leech Lake shares impound facilities with the city of Cass Lake, and the five cages are often full. City animal control officer Ken Bedeau says he's had luck finding homes for most of the strays through the humane society. Bedeau is a Leech Lake band member. He says dog ownership is ingrained in the culture.

"Our people have always had dogs. They've always had animals - they use them for guarding, protecting - they've also used them as workers," says Bedeau.

Animal control is an issue on many U.S. Indian reservations. On the Rosebud Reservation in South Dakota, an estimated 10,000 dogs inhabit the 7,500-acre reserve. Rabies is common, yet most dogs have no identification and run free, often traveling in packs. Leech Lake Environmental Health Specialist Greg Anderson says rabies has not been a problem there, but dog bites have. For eight years he kept records of hundreds of reported bite cases. He estimates there's an average of three dog bite cases a month that require a hospital visit, and many more going unreported. Anderson says the problem really lies with dog owners.

"There's a lack of spaying and neutering animals. Many times owners don't feed the animals, so it's not the animals' fault. They're trying to survive - digging in garbage, creating a nuisance - it's a public health hazard," says Anderson.

Anderson says the dog dilemma is also an economic one. Widespread poverty on the reservation means dog owners can't afford to spay or neuter their animals. And the tribal government has limited resources to deal with the problem.

The recent dog attacks have prompted a multi-jurisdictional search for the animals involved. Enforcement officers from the DNR, Forest Service and local counties have stepped up control efforts, and dogs found running in packs in rural areas are being killed on the spot. Leech Lake authorities say they've identified the owner of at least some of the dogs involved in the attacks. The suspect owner is not a tribal member, and the case is being turned over to the Cass County attorney for prosecution.