Musher vaccinates hundreds of dogs in remote Moose Factory

People living on the James Bay coast struggle to access healthcare, never mind veterinary care for their pets, but thanks to a resourceful musher turned animal control officer, Moose Factory’s pet population is getting vaccinated against harmful diseases.

Musher and animal control officer Phoebe Sutherland brought hundreds of doses to the remote First Nation

Phoebe Sutherland wears a heavy plaid coat and thick knit, grey hat and glasses. She's holding two husky puppies in her hands.
When asked why she is so committed to the vaccine program, Phoebe Sutherlands says "It’s just providing my dogs the best vet care I can with the gaps we have." (Phoebe Sutherland)

People living on the James Bay coast struggle to access healthcare, never mind veterinary care for their pets, but thanks to a resourceful animal control officer, Moose Factory's pet population is getting vaccinated against harmful diseases.

Dogs in Moose Cree First Nation are currently facing an outbreak of parvovirus, a highly contagious and potentially deadly virus affecting canines.

Unfortunately, there are no veterinarians to vaccinate the community's dogs and no readily-available vaccine.

Enter Phoebe Sutherland.

"In the province of Ontario, you really need to be at least a vet tech, if not a veterinarian, to provide a vaccine," said Sutherland.

"But I'm able to access five-way canine vaccines through sled dog supplies because I'm a musher. I was trained and observed by three different veterinarians."

Sutherland stepped into the role of animal control officer earlier this year, and has several years of experience as a musher.

Her skills are handed down from relatives, though the stories that come with them are painful.

"Indian agents and the RCMP went to my grandfather, who had a dog team, and said, you know, you have to take your kids to residential school, or you're going to lose your team," said Sutherland.

Then came dog culls affecting trappers and mushers.

Sutherland is committed to bringing the mushing tradition back to the region and is planning to launch a land-based program to teach others.

Part of her work is making sure her dogs, and now, the dogs of Moose Factory are in good health.

'Are you going to run the Iditarod?'

It was a production just to get the vaccines from supplier to injection.

Sutherland's sled dog supply store is based in Saskatchewan. She shipped the doses to Thunder Bay, Ont., where a friend received and stored three shipments in their refrigerator.

Phoebe wears a red sweatshirt and snow pants with suspenders and holds a case of parvovirus vaccines wrapped in plastic. She smiles widely.
Phoebe Sutherland co-ordinated the shipping of 300 doses of parvovirus vaccine from Saskatchewan to Moose Factory. She has since vaccinated hundreds of dogs in the community. (Phoebe Sutherland)

Eventually, the vaccine was handed off to another friend, travelling home from a Nishnawbe Aski Nation gathering.

"They got on a charter [flight], but they were supposed to be getting off in Timmins. We were trying to get them up to Moosonee, and they assured us they'd make an extra stop."

The doses landed in Moosonee, and were then delivered to Moose Factory Island by helicopter, since the region's ice roads have yet to freeze.

The journey is reminiscent of another northern trek, when mushers transported diphtheria antitoxin by relay from Anchorage, Alaska, to Nome, Alaska, in 1925. 

Decades later, the route was turned into a race called the Iditarod.

"People ask me all the time, 'are you going to run the Iditarod?' For me, it's not about the Iditarod," said Sutherland.

"It's just providing my dogs the best vet care I can with the gaps we have."

Once the vaccine landed in Moose Factory, Sutherland got to work, vaccinating more than 200 animals in just a few weeks.

Just the beginning

The work is funded by Moose Cree Nation's Economic Development department. A few years ago, the chief and council mandated that the pet population in the community be cared for in a more organized way.

"The concerns of health and safety of children and those people walking came into play," said director of economic development Stan Kapashesit.

Three maps show the journey of Phoebe's shipment. Each leg of the trip has its own map, graphics of planes or trucks linking locations.
Phoebe Sutherland's vaccine shipment crossed the country with a little help from her friends. (CBC News)

The department took on the project and has since funded the vaccination program. The bill so far is close to $3,000.

Most people who register their pets for the program pay $10 to $15, but the fee is waived for elders and people with low incomes.

The department is trying to close the gap in veterinary health care in the north, though Kapashesit recognizes it will be slow going.

"We do have plans to build a new animal care facility in our community. We're looking at funding sources and that kind of thing right now," he said.

"For those communities that are wishing to learn more or talk to us about our programs, we're more than willing to share what we've learned so far and what we still have to learn."

Phoebe Sutherland has the same hopes. She'd like to see a remote veterinary care facility set up in Moose Factory.

"We hope to find a veterinarian, maybe one of our students, who will hopefully come back home and provide that care."


Bridget Yard is the producer of CBC's Up North. She previously worked for CBC in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan as a video journalist and later transitioned to feature storytelling and radio documentaries.