When Carla Baker’s dog got sick a few years ago, she knew it was serious. Atuli, a 14-year-old husky, was suffering from bloat, a painful contusion of the gut, which, if left untreated, can cause the stomach to rupture. So Baker, who was living in Nunavut, where there are no veterinarians, called an animal hospital in Ottawa. But when the vet learned it would take days—not hours—for Atuli to reach an animal hospital, “her tone changed,” Baker recalls. “She told me that I had to put him down immediately.” Baker, now 29, became hysterical. “I didn’t want him to be shot,” she says. “But it had to be done.”
Baker is not alone. Despite the fact that Nunavut has a staggering concentration of dogs—a 2007 survey found that in Iqaluit, there were nearly half as many canines as the city’s 7,000 people—there is not a single veterinarian. The lack of access to sterilization has led to overpopulation, and euthanasia (by gun) is seen as a necessary evil to control numbers and disease. Common illnesses, easily preventable with vaccination, often run rampant. In Iqaluit, a recent outbreak of canine parvovirus, which leads to vomiting, diarrhea and possibly death, prompted council to pass an emergency measure: unclaimed strays could be destroyed by bylaw officers after 12 hours, rather than the standard 72. Says Janine Budgell, who runs the territory’s only humane society, in Iqaluit, “People don’t know how under-resourced we are, and how primitive the measures [that are used].”
Dogs have long been central to life in the Canadian North. As Paul Quassa, an Inuit politician, explains, “Husky dogs have always been our lifeline.” Quassa says disease and overpopulation became an issue with the introduction of other breeds from the south. “Our concept has always been dogs are meant to be outside, working dogs,” he says. “But mixed breeds, they’re not made as such.”
Despite the apparent need, setting up a veterinary practice in Nunavut is a difficult proposition. On top of an absence of infrastructure and resources, poverty means that many residents could not afford such services. (In Iqaluit, municipal bylaw officer Doug Vincent says strays often go unclaimed because their owners can’t pay the fine.) As Baker, who is enrolled in the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, points out, establishing a single clinic “does not help all the other people in the communities. You’d have to have some travelling capabilities.”
According to Budgell, who established the Iqaluit humane society in 2007, there are more pressing concerns. The territory still lacks specific legislation to protect animals from abuse and neglect, and Budgell says that “the territory needs to step up.” (She says a petition submitted last year has been ignored.) The Iqaluit humane society brings vets in twice a year to conduct sterilization and vaccination campaigns, and the Canadian Animal Assistance Team, among other groups, sends vets to other areas. But, says Quassa, it will take more than the odd visit.
If there were a vet in town, he says, “People would be more aware. They would be conscious of the fact that dogs also need doctors to take care of them.”