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After three days in the pound, this unclaimed and unlicensed pooch was led out to a pit near the Inuvik dump where it was disposed of with a gunshot to the head. The debate is on all over the North about whether or not this is a humane way to dispose of sick, unwanted or stray pets but in communities without full-time veterinarian services, the options are limited. - Chris Hunsley/NNSL photos

Death by gunshot

Chris Hunsley
Northern News Services

Inuvik (Feb 07/05) - It's usually reserved for the most violent of offenders: death through the barrel of a gun. Direct to the head and, usually, instantaneous.

So life comes to an end for man's best friend thousands of times a year in the NWT.

Whether it's municipal enforcement authorities disposing of stray dogs or owners relieving themselves of sick or unwanted pets, death by gunshot is a common, though controversial, practice in the North.

"The sad reality is that there are no services (in small or remote communities) like those offered down south, which are veterinarian services to euthanize the animals," said Linda Eccles, executive director of the Beaufort-Delta SPCA.

Eccles said she has logged calls from horrified parents, concerned about the trauma experienced by their children who stumbled across canine carcasses.

In certain communities, it's not uncommon to see the bodies lying near garbage cans, she explained.

"It's still the old town mentality that nobody knows any different. And it's not anyone's fault in the community because you've got nothing else offered," she said.

The barbiturate used for death by injection is a controlled substance and can only be administered by trained personnel, who are not available in most NWT communities on a full-time basis.

Stray, sick and aggressive dogs are no longer shot in cities like Yellowknife and Edmonton, where lethal injections are considered to be more humane.

"I don't think we would consider shooting as a humane euthanasia option," said Melissa Boisvert, marketing and communications co-ordinator for the Edmonton Humane Society.

"You can't really guarantee it's going to happen quickly and as painlessly as possible."

The recent reversal of a controversial Yellowknife RCMP decision has highlighted the debate. Six dogs were found dead near the city a few weeks ago - their mouths bound, shot in the face, the bodies left tied to trees - police originally announced the gruesome disposal did not call for animal cruelty charges.

However, on Tuesday they re-opened the case.

"Those dogs that were shot were totally improper," said Dr. Tom Pisz of the Great Slave Animal Hospital in Yellowknife.

The Canadian Veterinary Medical Association indicates that the only humane way to euthanize a dog via gunshot is from behind and down the back of the head, he said, adding that the Yellowknife dogs were shot in the face and did not die instantly.

Most would have asphyxiated on their own blood and pieces of bone, he explained.

But the doctor agrees that shooting is one of the few viable disposal methods available in many small Northern communities.

I don't think anybody likes this option, said Art Loupret, a municipal enforcement officer in Hay River who has the responsibility of disposing of stray and aggressive dogs in a community where the vet visits only every six weeks.

"I don't like to do it," he said. "But sometimes you don't have much of a choice."

Unleashed and unlicenced dogs run rampant in many communities, most of which are never claimed once captured by authorities.

Maybe 20 per cent of the dogs picked up in Inuvik each year are licenced, said Randy Shermack, community constable for the Town of Inuvik for the last five years. He estimates that 80 per cent of the unlicenced dogs held in the pound are never picked up.

Between 200 and 300 dogs a year are euthanized by gunshot in Inuvik, he said.

"It's hard," he added. "One is too many."

Shermack would like to see a bylaw in place to prevent dog owners who have acted cruelly or negligently from obtaining more dogs.

"The mentality is 'I don't want to pay to get the dog out (of the pound)'," he said.

Communities need to have better education about dog breeding, Eccles feels.

Loose dogs mate and create an overpopulation problem that has to be controlled, either by authorities or owners, she said.

Unfortunately, that control often comes by a bullet.

"I think with more education on our part and more assistance, this kind of thing can be stopped," she said.

In Fort Smith, animal control became a community endeavour after a resident took it upon herself to house lost and unwanted pets.

It started 30 years ago when she opened her backyard up as an animal shelter. Over the years, she lobbied the town council for funding.

The program has received funding for the past decade and recently the town bought a building to be used as the shelter's permanent facility.

"We were fortunate," said Dixie Penner, a volunteer at the shelter for five years.

"We have one of the better facilities in the territory now."