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Despite an exhausting weekend of leading her crusade, Virginia Ravndal portrayed no fatigue as she counted the number of unwanted dogs she has saved.

"Eighty-six dogs Sunday," she said. "We exceeded the number we hoped to rescue and relocate."

Ravndal and her colleagues at the Lakota Animal Care Project do what they can to help the abundance of suffering animals on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Last weekend ended with the transporting of the 86 reservation dogs to no-kill shelters in Colorado, Chicago, Wyoming, Minnesota. Another was moved Monday, then the 88th dog on Tuesday.

The project takes in two types of dogs: strays and those that families say they can't care for. The goal is to relocate 600 dogs per year.

Relocation is one of four programs the project pursues. The other three: spaying and neutering; basic animal health care; and a program to make children aware of the need for taking care of dogs. 

But last weekend, the focus was on relocations.

On Friday Ravndal drove around spotting dogs in the sparsely populated community of Georgetown. Her silver Chrysler van rumbled through the dusty and rut-filed roads. She was looking for a handful of dogs that need examinations before their relocation trips.

The van serves as a mobile veterinary clinic, and is stocked with food, medicine and dog carriers. Though the reservation is nearly 3,500 square miles, she said, there isn't a single veterinarian.

At Georgetown, the eastern edge of the Badlands gives way to the long rolling hills and prairie. Though there are only 15 or so homes in Georgetown, Ravndal estimated there are more than 50 dogs.  

Dogs on the reservation often are not spayed or neutered, so overpopulation and disease are rampant. Because many families can't give the proper care, their animals suffer.

The lucky ones find a shelter through programs such as the Lakota Animal Care Project.

On Friday, Ravndal was preparing animals to be shipped.

Although the project ended up shipping 88 dogs through Tuesday, when Ravndal was cruising Friday afternoon, she was expecting only 75. After they were picked up, they were taken to a gymnasium in Wanblee for veterinary exams in preparation for their road trips.

Although 75 seems a large number, it is but a fraction of the unwanted dogs on the reservation. The ones gathered up last weekend were from Wanblee and the surrounding area.

"Wanblee is a small community compared to other places on the reservation," Ravndal said. "Every other community here has at least that many dogs that need a new home."

Ravndal and her colleague Thecla Two Bears pulled into a driveway on the south side of Georgetown. They spoke briefly with a man about his and his neighbors' dogs. His chilling last words to them were that he preferred the dogs be "shot and dumped somewhere."

"We see it on both sides," Ravndal said. "I have some families asking us for us to find good homes for their dogs and others we pull up and (the dogs) are full of mange and (the residents) want to keep them."

At another home, Ravndal lifted the edge of a sheet of metal under a deck. Hidden there were six fuzzy puppies barely 10 days old, their eyes only slightly open.

"These little guys are going to a shelter without their mom," Ravndal said. "They are going to have to be bottle fed every two hours."

As she turned one of the puppies toward her so that savior and saved were face-to-face, Ravndal said, "Once we do that, they are going to grow up and be big and strong."

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Ravndal preaches that positive approach to everything with her organization as well. "If we see a dog full of mange and barely having any hair, most people want to go up to it and say 'Oh, you poor thing.' We say, 'Oh, look at those eyes, you are going to be a star.'" 

"It's all about the potential in the dog, not the current situation."

About an hour later, real life proved that approach's effectiveness. Ravndal pulled her van into a driveway of a Wanblee home.  A wiry brown dog with mange —  spotty hair and large, red, facial scarring — ran up to her.

Ravndal said the dog has had two treatments but will need many more before it is cured. Ravndal knelt and said, "Yes, you're a good dog." Emphatically wagging its tail and licking Ravndal's face, the dog seemed to agree.

With sadness around them, the people who rescue the dogs sometimes allow themselves to enjoy small moments of triumph. Before the dogs will be accepted in some states, they must be examined by a veterinarian. Rockie Smith, 68, has been a vet for 38 years in Martin. On Friday, he drove more than 40 miles to Wanblee to help the Lakota Animal Care Project.

Unsmiling and constantly occupied with the dogs, Smith didn't waste time on small talk. His stethoscope slung around his neck and dangling over this short-sleeved plaid shirt, he approached a puppy named Charlie and said, "OK, let's see what we are working with."

In seconds, he said: "Yep, he has fleas. Let's get his shot done."

Charlie's three-year rabies shot granted him a signed certificate, and a passport allowing him to go to a shelter off the reservation and be adopted. After the shot, Smith briefly let down his no-nonsense shield, scratching Charlie behind the ears and cooing, "You're a good boy, aren't you?"

The tasks confronting the Lakota Animal Care Project seem as large as the sprawling reservation itself, but Ravndal doesn't allow doubts to cloud her vision. If her organization can increase the number of spayings and neuterings, and if it can continue the relocation program, she said, "We could, in five years, get the dog population to a manageable level.

"We're not going for world peace here. We're going for something pretty basic. This is totally doable."

Rapid City Journal Managing Editor Jim Stasiowski contributed to this story.

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