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Rita Svisdahl and a litter of kittens she housed whilst waiting to find them a new home. Photo: Rita Svisdahl

Community advocate leads the way for animal care during pandemic

Mass spay and neuter clinics in Bella Coola have been on hold since 2019

By Saphiya Zerrouk , in City , on April 9, 2021

Rita Svisdahl isn’t a vet. But, over the years, she’s learned how to provide some emergency care to animals in her community of 2,000 in Bella Coola.

“There is no local vet care. I have suture kits and, for some people, I will go and throw a few stitches in an animal if something happened and then go and follow up,” said Svisdahl, a member of the Nuxalk Nation.

Svisdahl has been a leader in animal advocacy in Bella Coola for over 13 years, where the nearest clinic is a six-hour drive to Williams Lake. Lack of access to vet care can lead to animal overpopulation and the spread of feline and canine diseases

After years of efforts to manage populations of cats and dogs, Svisdahl managed to bring in the Canadian Animal Assistance Team that travels to remote communities to provide free mass spay and neuter clinics and vaccinations.

During the team’s first visit, the clinic treated 271 animals in four days, providing spay and neuter operations, as well as vaccines and urgent operations, free of charge.

“I can’t say enough good things about Rita’s efforts. I mean, it’s been amazing. Many of the animals would not have been spayed and neutered had it not been for that program,” said Joy MacKay, who lives in Bella Coola Valley.

Rita Svisdahl holding a patient waiting for a wellness check. Photo: Canadian Animal Assistance Team

But the clinic has been unable to return to Bella Coola since the pandemic hit.

With the mobile clinic’s work on hold, Svisdahl has continued working to keep populations under control through other means — like advocating for dogs to be kept at home or on leashes, especially if they have not been fixed or vaccinated.

But the community has been hard hit by the animal-assistance team’s absence — something that the team itself regrets.

“We had seven projects that we had set up for 2020 and we had to postpone all of them and I don’t know what’s going to happen this year. It just depends on the status of COVID and the vaccine roll-out,” said Chris Robinson, the Ontario-based executive director of the Canadian Animal Assistance Team.

Advocating brings big changes

Svisdahl grew up in Bella Coola, but moved to Vancouver for a period. It wasn’t until she moved home as an adult and took in an abandoned puppy that she took up the cause of animal management in her area.

“It kind of opened my eyes to all the other dogs I would see,” she said.

One of the things that worried her was how local dogs had formed packs — presenting a safety issue for people in the community.

At the time, she said, population control was largely handled through round-ups or culls. This involved shooting stray dogs.

Wanting to stop the culls, Svisdahl built up relationships with the Williams Lake SPCA and other animal-rescue groups that could help adopt out animals from the community.

Over the past eight years, she has opened her home to 1,600 animals who have been adopted out.

Canadian Animal Assistance Team patients recovering from spay and neuter surgeries. Photo: Canadian Animal Assistance Team

The team’s work has benefited another small town near Bella Coola, who were able to work consistently with them over several years. Svisdahl’s hope is that her community will get that chance once the pandemic is over.

A bylaw officer in Bella Bella, which is a seven-hour journey by car and ferry from Bella Coola with a population of 1,000, said their animal management has improved over the past 10 years working with programs like the Canadian Animal Assistance Team.

“You don’t really see too many strays anymore. You know, we got handfuls but most of the time people walk their dogs on leashes and take their pets in at nighttime, because we’ve got bears and cougars and wolves and all that around here,” said Randy Carpenter, a member of the Heiltsuk Nation.

Community comes together to help out

While these animal societies are unable to reach areas vulnerable to COVID, community members continue to find innovative ways to get care to animals as needed.

Svisdahl said she’s been liaising with the assistance team to provide emergency care and animal food as needed.

“I’ve had some animals be extremely injured that the [team] vets had seen so I have all the paperwork for all the animals that had gone through the clinic when they were here,” she said.

Local pharmacists have also been helping get medications like antibiotics to pet owners, she said.

With joint efforts to keep the community and animals safe during the pandemic, Svisdahl said having the clinic back soon is important for a healthy community and healthy pets.

“The education that they share regarding pet care and pet health, I just believe that a few years in a row of that consistency, just bringing it to and keeping it at the forefront again will make all the difference in the world. COVID put a bit of a wrench in the works.”