Lifesaving rides for pets in Navajo Nation

Keith Slim-Tolagai with a dog on his lap, sitting in the open door of a transport van
Hundreds of dogs and cats each month find a fresh start in a new place, one drive at a time.
By Sarah Thornton

The Navajo Nation is huge, spanning 27,000 square miles across Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado, but veterinary and shelter resources are few and far between. “The shelter system has a total of five shelters,” says Michelle Weaver, director of sanctuary outreach and animal engagement for Best Friends. “However, only three of them are operational full time, with one additional as they have staffing.”

While there is a four-dog-per-household restriction, limited access to affordable spay/neuter surgeries means families often end up with more than four, due to unexpected litters. And, of course, those puppies then need veterinary care that can, likewise, be difficult to access. Even when that care is available, it can mean family members taking an entire day to get pets neutered and vaccinated, with hours of driving to reach the veterinary facility and then waiting there for pickup.

[Spay and neuter: why is it important to "fix" your pet?]

To help their furry families, people turn to local animal control and the few shelters that do exist. And those facilities quickly fill up.

“It’s constant, it’s super fast-paced … There’s always this sense of urgency,” Michelle says. “We’re working with animal control, we’re trying to help directly in the shelter, and we’re also looking at what’s feeding the shelter. It’s just challenging. We work with some fantastic groups and the local groups are rocking it, too, but it’s a lot. It can be overwhelming for everyone — just the number (of animals).”

Best Friends Animal Society and several rescue groups work together with the shelter staffs to drive these pets to locations with the space to take them, freeing up the shelters to continue helping the community.

Keith Slim-Tolagai, Best Friends’ Navajo Nation program specialist, facilitates these lifesaving trips and also does all the driving. It means a lot of time spent in loud vans full of dogs and puppies and sometimes kitties, too. But every wagging tail is worth it.

A long road (trip) for pets

A lifelong animal advocate, Keith grew up and still lives on the Navajo Nation in Piñon, Arizona, the hub of several surrounding communities. But even living in a relatively central location, he spends most of his time on the road ferrying pets from nearby shelters to rescue groups many hours away. And that’s the way he likes it.

[Dog and cat transports save lives]

“I was telling my mom that when I’m not transporting I feel like I’m not doing anything,” says Keith. “Even though I still have to do my input, I still have to do other things (and) I think to myself that I’m not on the road. I have it in my mind that statement, those three words: Save Them All.”

Keith is humble when it comes to his contributions. Setting up trips to move pets while building relationships with the right people is a lot of hard work. He keeps in close contact with the local shelters, animal control and volunteers he’s recruited in neighboring communities to know when and where there are pets in need. He spends a lot of time contacting rescue groups. “I think the hardest part is … looking for rescues to take the animals,” he says.

Not only are rescue groups often running close to or over capacity, but most also have a reasonable request: They want to make sure incoming pets have had at least one round of vaccinations — something most of the cats and dogs entering shelters don’t have.

That’s where Olivia Holiday and the Navajo Nation veterinary program come in. “We take the animals to her location,” Keith explains, “and then Olivia — since she is at the vet clinic — vaccinates them, deworms them and gives them flea and tick treatment.”

When there is room at the clinic, pets may stay there with Olivia while Keith finds placements for them. Then it’s on the road again, typically to a rescue group in Phoenix, which is four to five hours away.

“To give perspective, and it’s slowing a little bit now, Keith was transporting around 200 animals a month,” says Michelle. “That’s facilitated transports, plus bringing the animals that we could take here at the Sanctuary. He’s driving most days of his week. He got a new van not that long ago and it’s already got 50,000 miles on it.”

The pet passengers

Loading up and driving around 200 animals a month (400 in May of this year) adds up to a lot of furry new friends for Keith, and they can leave quite an impression.

“Back in December or early January,” Keith recalls, “I noticed that there was a dog here in Piñon with two puppies running around near the social services trailer.” While momma was friendly and happy for the food and water Keith offered, her puppies were scared, and they ran off and hid whenever an attempt was made to catch them.

Before they could be caught, Keith was scheduled to be out of town (for most of the week) picking up more pets and taking them to new locations. “When I saw her again,” he says, “I noticed that the puppies were gone, but she had this really bad injury on her side and on her face.”

Keith arranged for her to come to the Sanctuary for much-needed medical care, which included having her injured eye removed. But it didn’t take long after she recovered for her to be whisked away to a new home with a loving family.

[Best Friends Animal Transport Volunteer Playbook]

He remembers, too, picking up an old terrier who was about to run out of time. “It was her last day … She’s crying and she kept standing on the gate,” he says. “She was really happy when I put the leash on her. And right away, too, she was adopted. I always think about her. Somebody reached out to me and sent me a picture and said, ‘Hey, this one is a part of our family. Thank you.’ It was good.”

All pet passengers have a story, and making sure they can tell them makes the long drives worth it. “(It’s about) saving as many as I can,” Keith says, “and approaching the people … with respect, with kindness, with positivity. I think that that’s most important to me.”

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

For a more in-depth look at how Keith and Michelle are working with people in these rural areas to care for their pets, listen to the Best Friends podcast “Helping people and their pets on the Navajo Nation.”

Listen here

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