PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION | It’s another day of roaming and scavenging and subsisting on the edges of life until suddenly the strange newcomers arrive, approaching and talking and gesturing.
The mutt flees around the edge of the house and hunkers in a hole below the deck, licking muddy meltwater from around the downspout and peering out with eyes full of tentative curiosity.
Are these friends or foes?
It doesn’t matter. They have food, so the mutt creeps ahead.
There’s no fight when the arms come forward. Only surrender.
“Paws off the ground!” a woman shouts.
The embrace is warm and the words soothing. But soon the mutt is in a cage inside a van.
Who are these dogs in the other cages? What’s happening?
Down a slush-filled track a few hundred yards away, three dogs in a horse trailer also are mystified.
In a matter of minutes, the dogs in the trailer will be dead, their carcasses heaped amid the rubbish of a landfill.
In a matter of days, the dogs in the van, including the mutt rescued from under the deck, will be on couches.
And the struggle between life and death on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation will go on for dogs and humans alike.
Late last Tuesday afternoon, according to Oglala Sioux tribal police, 8-year-old Jayla Rodriguez was sledding on the steep bank behind a Pine Ridge trailer house when she was fatally mauled by a pack of wild dogs. Agents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs and the FBI are still investigating the death.
A little girl's death is always sad, but Jayla's has had more meaning than most. It has roiled the reservation, as crews with distinctly different missions have pursued dogs in the name of safety.
“We call this part of the work ‘boots on the ground,’” says KC Willis, a feisty, diminutive middle-aged woman with the van crew. “And when a dog gets picked up, we call that ‘paws off the ground,’ because when those paws leave the ground, everything changes for that dog forever.”
Survivors and victims
The melodrama of the rescued mutt played out Friday afternoon a few miles north of the town of Pine Ridge, where a crew ordered to kill and another motivated to save met on the roadside to make their last exchanges of a long day.
Dogs deemed fit for rescue were passed through openings on the side of the horse trailer and into the arms of Willis, Jean Parker and Martin Poor Bear, a trio whose well-worn boots had been hitting the soggy ground all day for LightShine Canine.
Parker, a tough, pragmatic ranch woman from Nebraska, has been saving dogs on the reservation for 27 years. For the past few, she has been working with Willis, who splits her time between Hot Springs and Colorado, and Poor Bear, a burly tribal member who lends muscle.
Some of their rescued dogs were placed in an SUV in which they calmly sat one on each seat, including one dog that seemed serenely prepared to drive away. Others went into cages in the van.
Most were mutts, and then there was the Saint Bernard, a tall, lumbering, bone-thin beast with weary, bloodshot eyes who seemed doomed an hour earlier, his neck trapped in the noose end of a catcher’s pole just before being placed in the horse trailer. He sat in the back of the SUV, drooling and unaware of his change in fortune.
The other dogs deemed too mean or too sick spent their last few minutes of life in the horse trailer.
The unusual roadside gathering attracted the attention of nearby residents in the Calico Housing Project. There were unwanted dogs there, too, and one of them — the mutt who cowered under the deck — became the last rescue of a two-day effort.
The exhausted LightShine crew went home Friday night covered in grime and sweat and scrapes, but with the satisfaction of an estimated 40 dogs saved. Untold others went to their landfill graves.
Death as a rallying cry
Dogs across Pine Ridge were marked for death by anger and grief.
Some tribal officials and residents are convinced that Jayla Rodriguez's death was a painfully preventable product of a dog problem that has swollen beyond control.
Everywhere on the reservation, there are dogs. They run along the roadsides. They feast on roadkill. They chase children in the housing projects. They rummage in the garbage.
Irresponsible ownership is frequently blamed. Some dogs run away from careless owners, and others are turned loose in the countryside or at landfills by owners who no longer want them. The problem grows and grows, and yet tribal residents still obtain more and more dogs.
Now, with the stain of tragedy on the tribe, many say it’s time to do something.
The day after Jayla’s death, meetings were held and decisions made. Thursday, the killing roundup began. A beat-up truck pulled a mangled old horse trailer through the streets of the city of Pine Ridge. Dogs with no collars and nobody to claim them were swept up and into the trailer. Word was put out that in a week’s time, the roundup will expand reservation-wide.
‘This is terrible’
The work was oddly quiet. Some of the dogs in the back of the trailer stood there, silent, pathetic and helpless, looking nothing like killers. Some were docile pets taken without justification, at least a few residents claimed. And some of the dogs were troublemakers believed responsible for biting incidents.
Meanwhile, feral packs like the one reportedly responsible for Jayla’s death continued to roam the countryside.
Whether the captured dogs were dangerous, they were clearly too numerous. Many were starving, and some were afflicted with mange.
And the dog catchers had the law on their side. Tribal ordinances ban several breeds and half-breeds considered to be dangerous, and also ban stray dogs that are unlicensed and without rabies tags. Any such dogs, or any other dog deemed vicious, can be immediately destroyed. Further rules regulate tribal housing projects, where a tenant may have no more than two animals, and those must be controlled.
Thursday’s and Friday’s roundups were conducted in daylight and ended by mid-afternoon, but people on the reservation say the feral packs are more active at night. Willis, part of The LightShine crew, hopes tribal officials will “go outside of business hours” to target those wilder dogs.
“Right now, they’re maybe getting some bad dogs,” Willis said, “but some innocent dogs are going to die.”
Willis, Parker and Poor Bear say they’ll be back if the roundups continue, with more saving embraces for more frightened and emaciated dogs.
There was no saving embrace for Jayla, and that cold realization seems to insulate tribal officials against worries of a backlash against the roundups.
“We’ve had other incidents, but nothing like this,” tribal President Bryan Brewer said on Friday. “This is terrible.”