In his early years as Haida Gwaii’s first veterinarian, Don Richardson got lots of tough calls.
Trauma cases — dog fights, cat bites, dogs falling from trucks — were all-too common back when Richardson opened the Tlell animal hospital in 1980.
Scabies was a problem until it finally got stamped out in 1990.
For a few more years after that Richardson often had to do salvage surgeries, like removing a pet’s entire ear canal, due to untreated chronic infections. Many tom cats only got neutered when they were full-grown and had big face abscesses from fighting.
Worst of all, Richardson was often asked to put down unwanted pets.
“Nothing put a damper on a fine day at Tlell like having a pick-up arrive unannounced with 10 12-week-old puppies that the owner wanted euthanized because he couldn’t find any homes and there was no other option,” Richardson said at an all-islands meeting on animal welfare held in Masset on March 26.
“In those days, we saw these as the lucky ones compared to those which we saw come to the clinic when they were found wounded at the landfill or out on the back roads or even floating in a bag in the inlet.”
But over time, Richardson saw night turn to day for domestic animals on Haida Gwaii, not only because there was a veterinary clinic on island, but also thanks to volunteers with the local SPCA, the Masset Animal Help Line, and others.
By the 2000s strays were in decline, salvage surgeries were just about unheard of, and animal owners regularly came in for preventative help rather than last-minute care for sick and injured animals.
“Old dogs and cats used to be 10,” he said. “Now you are cheated if you don’t get 15 to 18 years out of your pet, and 20-year-old cats are not uncommon.”
However, speaking to the roundtable of islands leaders and animal welfare groups on March 26, Richardson warned that local governments and new volunteers will have to step up for Haida Gwaii to avoid any backsliding.
Many of the islands’ long-time volunteers are retiring, and the SPCA is currently without a dedicated animal shelter.
Anna Maria Husband is the chair of the Haida Gwaii SPCA council, which called the meeting on March 26.
Speaking from the Sandspit airport, where she was about to board a plane for the National Animal Welfare Conference in Calgary, Husband said the response to the meeting has been good so far.
Nearly all the local governments and band councils on island have agreed to join a working group this summer that will look at ways to set up and fund an animal shelter, an islands-wide animal welfare bylaw, and enforcement.
Last Friday, directors on the North Coast Regional District agreed to study the bylaw idea.
As Chief Administrative Officer Doug Chapman explained, the NCRD could adopt a single bylaw that, so long as the three municipalities consent, would apply to them and the regional district at once.
“That may make a lot of sense, and simplify the process,” said Masset Mayor Andrew Merilees.
Without such support, Husband said the local SPCA will have to reduce its services. Already, the branch is operating with very few fosterers for cats and dogs, and the one part-time staff member is overworked.
“I’m hopeful that we won’t get to that point,” Husband said.
While the animal shelter doesn’t have to be huge, Husband said, the islands do need a dedicated space for otherwise homeless animals, and a place to run education programs.
Down the road, Husband imagines a place where people can help socialize animals, and maybe even run a program for certified therapy animals that visit the islands hospitals.
“It can go lots of directions, but I think at least a basic education component is key to the whole issue.”