Members of a dog rescue organization are calling on the Manitoba Veterinary Medical Association to change rules they say prevent temporary vet clinics from setting up in remote communities.
On social media, images of dogs that froze in the cold — some roaming about in garbage with serious injuries, others dead with bullet holes through their carcasses — are exposing an ugly reality that communities have tried to combat without much help for decades.
A video taken by Jasmine Colucci, shown below, exposes some of what dogs experience in some of Manitoba's remote communities.
"The horrifying pictures and the realities that are out there, the instinct of some is, 'How is this possible? How is this happening?" said Colleen Holloway, spokeswoman for Manitoba Mutts Dog Rescue.
But public reaction is misplaced if it's directed at people who live in the communities, she said.
Many of Manitoba's remote and fly-in communities have no access to a veterinarian, Holloway said. For those that do, there's a cost — sometimes a very high cost — for services.
Manitoba Mutts, which has more than 300 volunteers, runs a program called Get Fixed Manitoba. It includes a number of veterinarians from the province who are prepared to volunteer time and services at a reduced rate to communities on an as-needed basis.
But the program ran one time only when, in 2014, volunteer veterinarians spayed and neutered dogs in the community of Norway House.
"We have vets. We have volunteers. We have supplies. We have money in the bank," Holloway said.
"What we also have is a bylaw standing in the way."
The province's vet association has rules for temporary clinics that want to set up in remote communities, and Holloway said some of them are preventing her group from accessing areas that need help.
A rule that requires any temporary clinic to get permission to set up from all veterinary clinics within a 250 km radius of the community is the most restrictive one, Holloway said.
That permission must be granted 10 weeks in advance of the temporary clinic setting up, and according to the province's chief veterinary officer, it exists as a courtesy to neighbouring veterinarians.
According to Holloway, the rule creates obstacles for veterinarians, communities and volunteers.
"It's the hoops you have to jump through to offer a service that communities are asking for.… They know that a dog cull is going to be the next step, and that shocks people," said Holloway.
The fastest way to help communities is to take down barriers to adequate treatment, she said.
"You don't have access to a vet? You're allowed to have a temporary clinic. That would be it."
Rules being reviewed
The provincial vet association said the rules were changed two years ago to address some of the challenges and it's now looking at other measures, said executive director Andrea Lear.
"We are [reviewing these issues]," she said. "We started this past fall and it's a long process."
In a statement, Lear added, "Not only is [MVMA'S animal welfare committee] reviewing this rule, they are also looking into how to better support veterinary care in remote communities. This is an important issue for animal health in Manitoba. Manitoba veterinarians and the MVMA support the establishment of programs that support animal health and welfare."
Human rights issue, animal rights issue
University of Manitoba professor of ethics Neil McArthur said the government is obligated to help fund a program with community leaders to tackle the problem.
"When we talk about basic human rights, the most basic human [right] is just the right to be safe in your own home, in your own community," he said.
For McArthur, the issue is a poignant one — he lost a friend to a dog mauling when both lived in remote Saskatchewan.
"There's also the issue of the rights of other beings — in this case, dogs.… In many cases, these are dogs that are in very poor health, that are diseased, that have not been offered vaccination," he said.
"They're either going to die on their own or simply be killed by humans because they haven't been given proper care."
McArthur said the province must respect communities' self-governance when approaching the problem.
"The communities will be thrilled they don't have to be carrying this burden on their own," he said.
"These communities want to deal with it, they just need the help."
First Nation welcomes assistance
Long Plain First Nation Chief Dennis Meeches said volunteers in his community work to come up with solutions. That includes finding homes for strays and treating their wounds.
But lately, band members' concerns about roaming packs of dogs and the risk they pose to human safety have increased.
"If you look at the statistics, right across the country, we've had a number of maulings where it resulted in the death of children," he said.
With limited resources, government help is welcome in the community.
Manitoba's chief veterinary officer, Dr. Megan Bergman, is also concerned.
"Feral and stray dogs are concerning not only as an animal welfare risk, but also a disease risk, because they can transmit rabies to animals and to people," she said.
Bergman said she is willing to sit down with First Nations leaders, community organizations and rescue groups to come up with a plan.
She said, however, that feral and stray dogs and animal control issues fall under the jurisdiction of communities to manage. Her office deals only with animal welfare.
Gap in governance
That animal control falls in a governmental gap poses a separate problem, said McArthur.
"There isn't someone who can say, 'I'm in charge for all these communities,'" he said.
"There's no one who has the overarching authority to say, 'We need to bring the dog population down.'"
Ron Kostyshyn, Manitoba's agriculture minister, has yet to respond to CBC's request for comment.