By STEVE YOUNG
WHITE RIVER, S.D. (AP) - If there was quiet in those dark, pre-dawn moments on March 14, it ended savagely.
A solitary figure, 49-year-old Julia Charging Whirlwind, after a night out shuffled home along the single street that comprises the Lower Swift Bear community at the west edge of White River.
The horror came suddenly.
Three, four dogs bolted through the darkness and were on her. Barking, snapping _ they caught her at the curb in front of her house and brought her to the ground in a vicious attack.
Across the street, her own hyped-up dogs startled Ernestine Bear Heels from her sleep. What she saw as she went to investigate stunned her.
Running from her house, Bear Heels could see that another neighbor, a man, had thrown himself atop Charging Whirlwind, swinging wildly at the dogs as he did. One of the victim’s sons had likewise bolted out of the family’s home with a bat in a manic attempt to fend the frenzied animals off his mother.
By the time the sheriff showed up, the dogs had torn the woman’s pants away and were fighting over them.
Blood crazy, witnesses called them. Ferocious and uncontrollable. Until blasts from a law enforcement gun exploding within the cauldron of chaos and snarling and screaming ended it all.
Leaving two dogs dead.
Leaving a woman dying just feet from her own house.
And in a horrific disbelief that settled in among the returning quiet that morning, leaving a shaken reservation to wonder why - and what in the world it should do next.
One of the tragedies of Julia Charging Whirlwind’s death is that it had been repeated on the Pine Ridge Reservation four months earlier.
A girl, 8-year-old Jayla Rodriguez, was sledding behind her father’s trailer house in Pine Ridge’s Crazy Horse community Nov. 18 when a pack of feral dogs attacked and killed her.
The sudden brutality of the child’s death sent shock waves far beyond the reservation borders. But in tribal communities across South Dakota in particular, as people spoke quietly about what had happened, there was a grudging acknowledgement that the horror of that November day could easily be visited upon them.
Called sunka (SHOON-kuh) by the Lakota, dogs once played an important role in tribal culture, as pack animals and as spiritual helpers. In time, the welfare society imposed on the Lakota and Dakota by treaties with the federal government changed all that.
Now free-ranging packs of dogs that many characterize as “Heinz 57 mutts” - some weird genetic cocktail that’s part pit bull, part Rottweiler and part whatever, tribal officials say - have come to symbolize the desperation and want of reservation life. In recent years, it seems, they’ve become more aggressive. And meaner.
Until Jayla’s death, one of the most heinous examples of that aggressiveness again was on the Pine Ridge Reservation. On July 29, 2003, 5-year-old Braedon Rodriguez was visiting his grandparents at Sharps Corner when he was mauled by two pit bulls.
The child survived but needed 250 stitches to his face and 15 subsequent facial surgeries.
At Rosebud, game warden Matthew Tucker recently witnessed a woman with a stroller get run down by dogs. “She didn’t get hurt,’’ he told the Argus Leader. “But she was scared to death.”
And there is more. The day after Charging Whirlwind was killed, a Valentine, Nebraska, man, Ethan Bordeaux, was walking just west of Rosebud toward his cousin’s house when three dogs charged from a blue trailer house.
As Bordeaux flailed at them with his sweater and his water bottle, the animals tore the flesh from his calves. The frenzy went on five minutes, he estimated. The blood poured out of his legs as a car approached honking its horn, giving him a window of escape when the dogs momentarily backed off.
Asked whether he thought he was going to die that day, Bordeaux quietly responded: “I did.”
They waited too long, acting Rosebud chairman William Kindle softly acknowledged. The death of Jayla Rodriguez in Pine Ridge should have been a wakeup call, and it did get them to talking, “but we sometimes talk things to death, and we don’t do anything until tragedy happens,” he said.
“Then we take the ball and run with it. I think that’s kind of what we did. We talked about it a little too long, and shame on us.”
So how does a society, a culture, get to this point?
Alvin Bettelyoun Sr., council representative for the Upper and Lower Swift Bear communities, wondered as much as he and others went door to door after Charging Whirlwind’s death and vowed to take care of the problem animals.
What he found was a nightmare. Dogs sick from mange and other diseases staggering as if drunk. In one makeshift dog house at Lower Swift Bear, puppies fed off their mother’s carcass.
“The smells, the sounds I heard that day, I’ll never forget,” Bettelyoun said. “What I seen was really horrific.”
While there is ample proof across the reservation that many dogs are cared for and treated well, it’s just as likely “there are hundreds of other dogs that no one claims,” Tucker, the game warden at Rosebud, said.
Too many people who get them as puppies don’t take care of them, Bettelyoun said. They can’t afford the vet bills. They can’t even afford dog food.
Trail cameras on the tribe’s timber reserves pick up dogs wandering 10, 12 miles from the nearest community. “I mean consistently,” Tucker said. “They’re not necessarily wild dogs; they’re just traveling looking for food.”
Kindle has a notion that part of his reservation’s problem is tied to clandestine dog fighting, though he admits he has no real proof of that. He, Bettelyoun and others think gangs at Rosebud are probably responsible for the increasing aggressiveness in dogs as well.
“You see a lot of these dogs on real heavy chains,” Kindle said. “They kind of like to walk them through town, almost like, ‘Look at me. I’m this little gangster.’”
Dogs get rocks thrown at them, Tucker said. He sees them being kicked and beaten. “People try to run over them going down road,” he said. “Yeah, it happens.”
And in all honesty, he said he doesn’t have a problem with aggressive dogs that are chained or fenced in a yard. “People have aggressive dogs to protect their property,” he said. “Somebody wanders into a yard and gets bit, you know, that’s their problem. I have dogs for a reason, the protection of my children.”
But those aren’t the kind of animals he has seen every day, all day long, since Charging Whirlwind was killed.
These dogs have nothing to eat, Tucker said. They have nobody to care for them. Nobody to pet them. Nobody to love them.
They are born not belonging to anybody and will die the same way.
“A lot of these dogs are better off, you know, dead,” he said. “It’s unfortunate to say that, but I mean, life can’t get any worse for them.”
When dog bites turned into death certificates, tribal governments had to act.
After Jayla’s death, Pine Ridge authorities rounded up trailer loads of wandering dogs, destroying most of them but sparing others when owners or rescue groups intervened.
Similarly on the Rosebud, as many as 40 dogs were put down in the aftermath of the attack in White River. Some were out of control, Bettelyoun said. Many of the others, according to Tucker, were actually turned in by their owners.
“People told us, ‘I can’t take care of them anymore,’” he said. “‘They’re sick or they’re all mangy.’”
Scores of residents on the Rosebud hid their animals after Charging Whirlwind died and even threatened tribal authorities who came to their doors. They were convinced the slaughter of animals four months earlier at Pine Ridge was coming to their communities.
“People were scared that we’re pretty much ... going to go into their houses and take their dogs away,” Capt. Mark Kettell with the Rosebud Police Department said. “We’re definitely not doing that. We’re not looking to do that.”
What they’ve always wanted, Kettell said, is for residents to simply step up, care for their animals and keep them chained or fenced.
One of the problems at Rosebud is that there is no animal control department. There was at one time, but the hardships of tribal life call for difficult decisions sometimes, Kindle, the acting tribal chairman, said.
The animal control budget “kind of went by the wayside,” he said. “It was something that we probably took out of the budget when we used the money for propane and food and things like that for the people.”
Those dollars are coming back now. Until then, police officers, game wardens, even council members find themselves playing a frustrating and at times menacing game of hide-and-seek as they patrol the reservation’s 20 communities, looking for dogs with no chains, no collars and no apparent owners.
“People see us coming and they take their dogs inside,” Bettelyoun said. “Later that day, when I’m driving around, the dogs are outside again, chasing my pickup, biting my tires. These are the kinds of things we have to encounter. But we have to try to take care of them before they hurt anyone else.”
There is no wholesale butchery of dogs taking place on either the Pine Ridge or Rosebud reservations these days.
Rather, tribal authorities say they are making sweeps of their various communities - or plan to make sweeps - looking for animals with no apparent signs of ownership.
Officials insist they knock on three, four doors to see if they can identify an owner. If not, the dogs are transported to temporary shelters for a month or so until owners claim them, or rescue groups come to take them away or, in a worst case scenario, they have to be put down.
It is a daunting task. There are four game wardens on the Rosebud to cover five counties and a million acres. At one moment, dogs are harassing sheep over near Winner; the next, a frustrated rancher 70 miles west outside of Parmelee has cattle whose ears have been chewed off by a wandering pack.
“People accuse us of not taking it seriously,” John Mousseau, deputy chief of police in Pine Ridge, said. “It’s such an unknown area out here, and we don’t know what’s going to happen one minute to the next. People say, ‘We want an officer.’ They don’t understand that in Indian country, an officer may be 45 miles away handling a domestic call.”
The police in Pine Ridge are working with the tribe to strengthen their animal control codes, he said. They’re looking for money to maybe retrofit their old jail into a humane shelter. They’re seeking partnerships to have ongoing spaying and neutering programs.
The same is true in Rosebud. After Charging Whirlwind’s death, the tribe embarked on an intensive, 60-day sweep of their communities to locate problem dogs. They’re going to use public service announcements to promote better care and monitoring of the animals. They plan to use an old BIA facility outside of Rosebud called the East Yard to temporarily house impounded animals for now.
Of course everything costs money, and these are not rich reservations.
They need cages to house the animals and catch poles to capture them. They need dollars to hire people to care for impounded dogs, and more dollars for vehicles to send staff out on calls.
There is a simmering frustration that it all doesn’t seem to be happening quickly enough.
So they wait - for the money, for the equipment. As they do, Mousseau conceded that there’s always a fear that another incident like the one that killed Jayla Rodriguez will happen again.
“The concern is always there,” he said. “It’s just a matter of having to get everything accomplished as fast as we can.”
Two weeks before she died, Jayla Rodriguez stood outside Big Bat’s convenience store in Pine Ridge and agonized over a three-legged dog that hobbled by.
“She felt so sorry for it,” her mother, Danielle Griffith, recalled. “She wanted to take him home right now. She was so passionate about it.”
Jayla would not have stood for the killing of dogs in her name, her mother said. And so Griffith, 26, and others - from Sioux Falls to Sioux City, Colorado to Minnesota - have taken up the cause of animal welfare on the reservations.
Jayla’s Dream, a nonprofit that hopes to build no-kill shelters on the Pine Ridge Reservation, has become the calling for Griffith and her family. Along with raising money for the shelters, they’re pushing the tribe to secure the services of a veterinarian either full- or part-time to spay and neuter.
It’s not happening fast enough, Griffith observed, and that frustrates her.
“I’m not satisfied with how things are going,” she said. “That other lady dying (in White River) just proves how much these tribes need to get it together and do something.”
Mousseau, the assistant police chief in Pine Ridge, sounds frustrated as well. While he noted there was work being done to strengthen tribal animal control codes, the problem of feral dog packs running at large continues.
“We had all these animal rescue groups, whenever we first said we were going to do a roundup, they came in and said they were going to do all this and help,” Mousseau said. “We still have a dog problem. I don’t know if they’re out there picking up dogs or not.”
It is a tender discussion. K.C. Willis, who heads LightShine Canine Rescue out of Hot Springs and Gordon, Nebraska, is quick to point out that at least 800 dogs have been removed from the Pine Ridge Reservation and placed in rescue shelters since Jayla’s death.
That Mousseau doesn’t know that probably means tribal housing hasn’t communicated it to him, she said. The reality, she continued, is that her agency has not only sent dogs off to shelters and foster homes in North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota, Nebraska and Colorado, but also delivers 2,000 to 3,000 pounds of dog food every month to Pine Ridge residents.
They’ve brought in services to deworm and vaccinate dogs, Willis said. They have paid to have dogs spayed and neutered. Along with hundreds of dogs her organization removed before Jayla’s death, that means tens of thousands of dogs won’t be born over the next decade because animals breeding out of control have been taken off the reservation, she said.
Her organization is not alone. The Oglala Pet Project out of Kyle is vaccinating and find homes for dogs, too, Willis said. And there are animal-loving volunteers from places as far away as Sioux Falls who are soliciting people to travel to the reservations to save the animals.
“When that little girl was killed, that was my main reason for doing this,” said Sioux Falls real estate agent Katie Day, who not only organizes trips to the reservations to get dogs, but also sends collars, leashes, bowls, food and treats when she sends those volunteers on their way.
“There’s maybe a dozen from this area getting involved” on the reservations, Day said. “We love animals is the main reason. By helping out dogs on the reservation, we’re helping out the people, too.”
Can any of this really make a difference? Bettelyoun, Tucker, Kindle and other tribal authorities think so. The alternative, they say, is more Julia Charging Whirlwinds and Jayla Rodriguezes.
It took decades to get to this point, Willis said. It’s going to take time to get it under control.
“The thing is, it’s easy to sit on the outside and offer First World solutions to a Third World country,” she said. “You’ve got to understand the poverty on these reservations. This is like Hurricane Katrina for these dogs. It never ends, and people need to understand that. So yeah, the tribes need to do something about it. But they’re going to need help. They’re always going to need help.”
A Sioux Falls real estate agent, Katie Day, is helping to remove unwanted dogs from South Dakota’s reservations to rescue shelters and foster homes in other states. She’s not only looking for drivers who can go and bring back the animals, but also is accepting donations of collars, leashes, bowls, kennels, dog treats and more to send with those drivers to the reservations.
If you want to help with what is viewed as an ongoing need, contact Day at (605) 941-6903, or online at Katie(at)amystockberger.com