SUNDANCE, N.M. – A lone dog with sad eyes and no collar trotted up a dusty dirt road in a hardscrabble community near the southeast corner of the Navajo Nation.
In a flash, a pack of other free-roaming, collarless dogs scurried up the same road. One lunged at the lone canine, unleashing a ferocious attack with bursts of snarling, growling and barking that sent them all fleeing in different directions.
The scene isn’t unusual here or in nearby communities where an estimated 250,000 of the animals referred to as “rez dogs” roam unchecked. Sometimes, with deadly consequences.
Tribal lawmakers recently passed a resolution to establish criminal penalties for vicious dog attacks like the one that Lyssa Rose Upshaw’s family believes killed her. Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez later vetoed the resolution, saying it didn’t go far enough and needs more input.
Lyssa Rose, 13, went for a walk before dinner in Fort Defiance on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation last month and was mauled by a neighbor’s dogs, her family said. Police have not released an exact cause of her death.
“She had no skin on her legs,” Lyssa Rose's mother, Marissa Jones, told the Santa Fe New Mexican. “They chewed her legs. She was gone.”
The teenager’s family described her as sweet and quiet, and said she was looking forward to joining the track and cross-country teams as a freshman in high school. She was buried May 25.
At least six deaths on the Navajo Nation have been blamed on dog packs, including the death of two boys. Other people have lost limbs or had to be treated for dog bites, Animal Control Manager Kevin Gleason recently told a committee of tribal lawmakers.
Violating animal control laws is considered a civil offense, with a maximum $500 fine. Gleason said none of the laws hold dog owners responsible for deaths.
While residents are prohibited from owning more than four animals and must restrain dogs, those limits seemingly are ignored. Animal Control Officer Gregory Pahe said he has removed up to 32 cats and dogs from a single home.
The tribe doesn't have enough personnel to address the problem. Gleason told tribal lawmakers that only a handful of animal control officers cover the 27,000-square-mile reservation that stretches into New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, forcing them to be more reactive than proactive.
The pandemic made things worse. Animal shelters shut down, enforcement nearly ground to a halt, and spaying and neutering services were drastically cut back.
A small team of animal control officers and others captured multiple dogs in Sundance earlier this month, including two that were part of the fight on the dusty road using cages, ropes and poles.
“A lot of times, these dogs live out in the hills, in the canyons, so they don’t know any other way except to be feral,” Pahe said.
Jimmy Begay, who lives in the Sundance community, said he was relieved when animal control officers hauled away a dog that showed up at his doorstep. But he’s contacted officers before about free-roaming dogs and got no response.
“There’s just dogs everywhere,” he said.
Unincorporated areas and cities that border the Navajo Nation also are understaffed and trying to avoid tragedy, said Tiffany Hubbard, an animal control officer in Gallup, New Mexico. But, she said, someone is always on call.
Hubbard said her agency has received calls for help from the Navajo Nation but cannot respond, other than to take in animals when there’s room.
“We have to explain to them we have no jurisdiction,” she said.
People and animal shelters outside the reservation have rescued stray animals at times. Hubbard said state, local and tribal governments need to direct more funding for animal control.
“It doesn’t pop into people's heads until something bad happens that they need to help these guys out and give them the funding, give them the tools that they need to do their job,” she said.