In September 2020, Rick Haaland, the Pets for Life community outreach manager for the Leech Lake Tribal Police in northern Minnesota, answered a call about a large dog named Winston. The dog had gotten into an altercation with a porcupine and was covered in quills. When Haaland saw Winston at the family’s home, he wondered how the dog was still alive: Over 150 quills were sticking out of his face, shoulders and legs. 

When Haaland opened the carrier to transport Winston to the veterinary office, Winston walked right in “as if he was ready to go,” Haaland says. At the clinic, veterinarians discovered that some of the quills were embedded in Winston’s joints. It would take multiple surgeries to remove them. Winston’s family was overjoyed he would survive but made the difficult decision to relinquish him because they could not afford the surgeries.

Winston the pit bull, who recovered from being covered with porcupine quills
Winston gets attention from Pets for Life’s Thompson.
Dan Koeck
AP Images for the HSUS

That prospect didn’t sit well with Haaland. He called the clinic to negotiate the cost and learned that the Veterinary Technology Program at Ridgewater College had offered to care for Winston free of charge. Haaland helped the family prepare their yard so Winston would have a safe, clean environment after his surgeries and made doghouses for Winston and the family’s other dog. After four months in veterinary care, Winston was finally ready to go home. From the driver’s seat, Haaland listened to the dog squeal with excitement as they approached the family’s home.

Winston is just one of hundreds of pets Haaland has helped since December 2019, when the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe joined the mentorship program of Pets for Life, a Humane Society of the United States program focused on community outreach and addressing inequities in access to pet resources in underserved regions.

Two people and a child looking at a small black puppy
Brandi Jenkins (L) and Jade Belgarde (R) watch as a girl named Sami handles a puppy found with the help of the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Pets for Life team.
Dan Koeck
AP Images for the HSUS

Rachel Thompson, senior program manager of operations and strategy for Pets for Life, says the tribal police—the department in charge of managing the program—was committed to supporting pet owners long before the mentorship began.

“I think they were doing Pets for Life, but just not calling it Pets for Life,” Thompson says. “If somebody had an issue, they were doing what they could to provide support rather than punishment.” The Pets for Life mentorship program gives communities tools to offer more of that support by providing trainings, financial assistance and ongoing guidance and advice. Haaland called Thompson for suggestions on how to help Winston; she recommended negotiating the veterinary bills.

The mentorship program identifies organizations that are committed to community-based work and have the capacity to take on Pets for Life, says Amanda Arrington, HSUS senior director of the program. “There is no lack of love for pets [in Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe], but there is a lack of access to services,” she notes. “That is the gap Pets for Life works to fill.”

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is the second Indigenous community to join the mentorship program—Blackfeet Nation in Montana joined in 2017—and Pets for Life plans to work with more Indigenous communities in the coming years. “The work that is happening at Leech Lake represents this much larger mission: for us to shine a light on the oppression and historical marginalization of Indigenous populations and to do our part to start to change that,” Arrington says.Thompson visited Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe in July 2021 to connect with local leaders and pet owners and learn about their needs. “One of the first things I noticed when working with this group was how connected to the community they were,” she says. “Because of that, they knew exactly what their community wanted and needed. Primarily it was just the most basic access to veterinary care.”

Two people load a dog into the Pets for Life van
Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe Pets for Life community outreach manager Rick Haaland (R) and national program manager, Rachel Thompson (L) picking up a dog on Leech Lake reservation.
Dan Koeck
AP Images for the HSUS

Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe is located in a remote area. Veterinary services are both difficult to access and prohibitively expensive. Haaland explains that lack of transportation is a major obstacle for pet owners—the nearest 24/7 emergency clinic is two and a half hours away. 

“We lose way too many pets because it’s a weekend and we can’t get them in,” Haaland says.

Pets for Life is working to bridge the gap between pet owners and affordable, accessible medical care. In the long term, the team is working with the tribal police to build a veterinary clinic on the reservation. Meanwhile, the HSUS has provided a grant to cover veterinary care and pet supplies as well as a van to transport animals to veterinary clinics. 

60,000 pounds of pet food have been distributed to the Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe community since 2019.

Pets for Life staff are cognizant of the community’s desire not just to have services provided locally, but to be the ones providing the services. In addition to helping with access to veterinary care, the HSUS grant also pays for Haaland’s full-time position. In his two years in the role, Haaland has already met with almost 400 clients, served over 600 pets and distributed approximately 60,000 pounds of pet food donated by the HSUS and Chewy.

A lifelong resident of the area, Haaland has served on the city council for many years, was recently elected as a county commissioner and is an enrolled member of the White Earth Nation. His many hats make his Pets for Life job easier, he explains; he’s often talking to people he’s known for a long time. “The biggest thing in our community is trust and knowing the person who is there to help you in times of need,” Haaland said in a HumanePro (an HSUS resource site for animal sheltering professionals) webinar on partnerships between animal welfare organizations and Indigenous communities.​

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Pets for Life is working to upend traditional, flawed approaches to animal welfare on tribal lands. Work in Native communities is often done by organizations from outside the region, says Arrington, and these groups sometimes engage with Indigenous communities in harmful ways due to preconceived notions and a lack of understanding about the structural discrimination against Indigenous people. Historically, animal welfare organizations have removed pets from loving homes instead of increasing access to resources. 

Before Haaland stepped into his role, Leech Lake pet owners often had to face the difficult decision of relinquishing their pets if they couldn’t afford the veterinary bills. Now that doesn’t happen as often. “People know where to go now,” he says. “They know who to call to ask for help.”

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