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Spay/neuter clinic provides foundation for healing

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PABLO — Nearly 200 cats and dogs were spayed and neutered last weekend during a two-day event sponsored by Arlee Rehabilitation Center’s Spay/Neuter Taskforce.

Held in the Joe McDonald gym at Salish Kootenai College, ARC volunteers paired up with veterinarians and vet techs from Spay Montana to sterilize as many animals as they could in a short window of time. Three teams – consisting of a veterinarian and a technician – were assisted by 50 volunteers who in total, fixed 138 cats and 60 dogs. 

Founded in 2019, ARC’s mission is to facilitate mutual healing between humans and animals on the Flathead Indian Reservation. ARC’s spay/neuter task force is part of a three-pronged approach to fulfill this mission.

“The purpose is to bring healing to trauma victims in our community,” explained ARC Executive Director Filip Panusz. “Trauma victims is an inclusive term – both people and animals. We are all caught up in the same challenges. The same traumas.”

Overpopulation of cats and dogs causes trauma for both people and animals. Trauma for animals when there’s too many of them to care for often involves injury to the animals. When they’re left to roam, cats and dogs can be hit by cars, starve, contract illness or even be shot.

There have been “quite a few” cases this year of dogs being shot Panusz said. Parvo, an illness that spreads rapidly in puppies, has been another big problem in the area. “It’s spreading like crazy,” he said, “and people don’t understand how it spreads.” Often fatal, parvo is “emotionally gut wrenching and physically hard” for people. “Sure, this involves animals, but ultimately at the heart of it all, this is about people,” he said.

Panusz maintains that getting to the root of trauma in order to prevent it from continuing is how healing begins. This is why the spay/neuter taskforce’s work is so critical, “We’re doing the spay/neuter clinic because if we don’t all of our other work is undermined … If we could get the population under control we could put a dent in all of that trauma.” 

Through another large event they put on in April and ongoing weekly efforts, ARC’s spay/neuter taskforce has fixed about 450 total animals year to date. The organization continually works through waitlists for spay/neuter services as they are able to. Though free to the community, large spay/neuter clinics are an expensive undertaking. ARC paid a “solid $10,000 or more” to put on last weekend’s event. The value to the community, Panusz said, is well surpassed by the cost. He estimates the monetary value of services provided to be approximately $50,000 and adds that there are human value benefits as well.

Though they provide some of the same services, such as rescue and holding of animals, Panusz emphasizes that ARC is not an animal rescue or shelter.

“We do some of the same things, but with a broader framework – a different philosophy and purpose behind it,” he said. “The purpose is healing.”

In order to fully realize their mission, ARC is currently working with the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes to acquire land, 20 to 50 acres in the north end of the Jocko Valley, upon which to develop a healing site. The healing site will have the capacity to house both animals and people. A teepee village and tiny homes will be developed alongside fenced areas and corrals for animals. There will be therapy units for people suffering through trauma who can benefit from quiet time spent with animals – mostly dogs and cats, but also horses.

With a goal to get a lease signed by the end of the year, Panusz said he hopes to groundwork on the healing site in early spring. 

ARC’s two other programs – the Reservation Canine Healing Experiment and Paws on the Ground will be able to grow once the healing site is complete.

Until permanent facilities are developed, “Pawsitively Healing Summer Camps” are currently the only component of the Reservation Healing Experiment that’s up and running. Designed for children ages 8 to 13, the camps focus on building social and emotional resilience in at-risk youth through activities that cultivate empathy, stress management, self-esteem, and improved communication and relationships.

“This year’s camp was the best so far,” Panusz said. In its third year, the summer camp hosted 25 children, all who had an experience with trauma. The children got to spend time with dogs, horses, other animals, mental health professionals and a crew of six counselors. Panusz is proud of how the camp is growing, “I feel like we did a really good job. Each year is going to get better and better.”

“Paws on the Ground,” ARC’s third program, offers emergency rescue, intervention, and support for canines and their caretakers. Already in place via the dynamic network of ARC volunteers, rescue and holding efforts will benefit from the healing site’s centralized headquarters. Ultimately, Panusz envisions further partnership with the county and tribes to provide animal/human crisis support.

Supported entirely by private donations and grants, Panusz sees business sponsorships as potential growth area to stabilize operational funds. “Every $1,000 or $5,000 that a larger business contributes because they believe in what we’re doing helps us continue to function,” he said. 

For more information about ARC visit: or the organization’s Facebook page.

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