Navajo Nation residents go the extra mile for pets

Person touching a smiling heeler-type dog in the back of a pick-up truck
Local volunteers play a key role in how Best Friends programs serve dogs, cats, and their people.
By Liz Finch

Mya James didn’t grow up taking care of cows. She doesn’t live somewhere with a barn or land to keep a cow. But when the Navajo Nation resident sees an animal without food, water, or shelter, she does what needs to be done. She takes care of that animal, regardless of species.

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“I’ve never taken care of a cow before,” says Mya, recalling how she recently came across a cow stranded in the middle of nowhere. “Sure, I have been bringing dogs and cats home since I was a kid, but this was my first cow. I couldn’t bring her home.”

What she could do, however, was provide hay and water to the stray bovine until someone else could take her in. Mya did the same last year for a starving horse. She posted them both on social media, and though no owner claimed either one, eventually they were adopted by community members.

“A young man in Chinle took the horse, and he sent me pictures recently,” Mya says. “The horse was so shiny and healthy-looking, and he looked better than he probably ever has.”

Olivia Holiday is another member of the Navajo Nation who stepped up to help animals in need time and time again since she was young.

“I was 8 years old when I brought home my first stray,” she says. “I’ve been doing it for so long that it just comes naturally. That’s how a lot of us are in the community.” Olivia estimates that she’s helped find homes for hundreds of animals since she started. And she’s not slowing down.

Best Friends’ work with Navajo Nation

A single person helping hundreds of pets in need is a hint at how many of them there are. There are an estimated 250,000 dogs on the reservation, which spans 27,000 miles and three states, and only a handful of veterinarians serve the communities contained within those borders. That large gap between needs and available resources spurred Best Friends to launch new work with Navajo Nation residents in May 2020. The primary focus is on hosting spay/neuter, vaccination, and wellness events that bring vet care to people for their pets.

“We sponsor the Parker Project’s monthly clinics using its mobile unit and veterinary volunteers, and we provide grant funding to other spay and neuter organizations and rescue groups,” says Michelle Weaver, Best Friends director of sanctuary outreach. “These clinics are really important because they are able to perform many spay and neuter surgeries over a two- to three-day period, and over time that is impacting overpopulation issues. Residents are also able to access veterinary care for minor illnesses, emergencies, and preventive care at many of these clinics.”

[New veterinary resources for pets in Navajo Nation]

Best Friends gives supplies to people so that they can keep their pets. When animals need new homes, the program team helps coordinate driving them to more populated areas with greater demand for adoptable pets. In many cases, those dogs and cats need temporary fostering, and that’s where local volunteers are most crucial.

“There are multiple animal control facilities scattered around the Navajo Nation, and a high volume of animals coming into them,” Michelle says. “The Best Friends team is small, consisting of four staff members. It's helpful to have someone from the community available to pick up animals and either foster them themselves or deliver them to a local foster until we can transport that animal to a rescue organization. Sometimes volunteers also transport the animals to rescues.

“Having community members involved is more than just a matter of convenience, however,” she continues. “They inform their friends, family, and neighbors about the issues on the reservation and what resources are available. They often become advocates who help create the changes they want to see in their community as it relates to animals.”

Volunteers bring passion, experience to their work

“We could not do this work without the local volunteers,” Michelle says. “Having them involved stretches resources even further so that we can help as many people and animals as possible.”

While Olivia and Mya are relatively new volunteers with Best Friends, they both volunteer with other animal organizations. About two years ago Mya began fostering on a short-term basis for Colorado-based Blackhat Humane Society, while Olivia began volunteering with the Navajo Nation Veterinary Management Program (NNVMP) as a teenager, taking over the task of networking for their puppy program from 2017 to 2022.

[Best Friends grants help bring vet care to Navajo Nation]

She also earned an associate’s degree in veterinary technology and is currently pursuing a bachelor’s in business administration at Dine College in Gallup, New Mexico. She is hoping to use that degree to write grants and start a nonprofit that will assist the Navajo Nation’s low-income families and their animals. While she’s in Gallup, though, she is regularly pulling animals from the shelter in Fort Defiance, Arizona, and finding foster caregivers and rescue groups for them.

They’re both doing more than their fair share of spreading awareness and creating more advocates as well. After so many years of rescuing and networking, Olivia says things are different from when she started.

“When I see a Facebook post about found animals, I’ll ask people if they can foster temporarily, and a lot of them will as long as I can provide food and vaccines for their pets as well as the foster (animals),” Olivia says. Sometimes all people need is some coaching.

A woman contacted Olivia about a dog who gave birth on her porch. “I told her the dogs don’t need to be inside the house as long as they have someplace warm to go,” Olivia says. “So she set up a heat lamp for them.

“She followed up with pictures of the puppies now, and I think she may have found a rescue on her own,” she adds. “It just proves that we can all do it. You don’t have to have vet skills or a background in animal care. All it takes is someone who has compassion.”

Mya admits the work can be hard, but it's worth it.

Sometimes she comes across animals who have no home or shelter from the heat or cold. Helping those animals is what brings her joy. Mya says, “When I see the animals going to a rescue (organization) or a new home, that boosts my energy to keep going.”

It helps to see pictures of animals healthy and happy after they had to fight for survival. She says, “I know they are where they were supposed to be, and that I helped them get there.”

This article was originally published in the July/August 2023 issue of Best Friends magazine. Want more good news? Become a member and get stories like this six times a year.

Learn more about assisting people and their pets on the Navajo Nation

Listen to “Helping people and their pets on the Navajo Nation” for more about how Best Friends is working with people in these rural areas to care for their pets.

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