Local woman an advocate for reservation dogs

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Jerri Swenson poses at her Whitefish home with one of the dogs she rescued from Browning. (Brenda Ahearn/Daily Inter Lake)

A Flathead Valley woman with family ties to the Browning and Babb areas has taken the lead in helping the Kaawa’ pomaaka Society, an organization that rescues dogs and cats on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation.

It was a case of one thing leading to another for Jerri Swenson of rural Kalispell. When a young man was doing some work around the house for her this fall, she noticed he was packing around two 3-week-old puppies and soon discovered the young man had rescued them from a dire situation in Browning.

Swenson then paid the man for the puppies and cared for them until she quickly found homes for the pups. It made her happy to help find homes for the puppies, so she began researching ways to help stray and unwanted reservation dogs. 

Her quest led her to the Kaawa’ pomaaka Society.

In October she attended a spay and neuter clinic conducted by the society in Browning — and there was no turning back. She came home with Lucky, a sweet 2-year-old heeler-mix whose ear had been cut off by an abusive owner.

“When we found Lucky she was full of milk,” Swenson said, adding the owner told her the puppies had been stolen by neighbor children. “The owner told us, ‘Take her. I don’t want her.’”

So Lucky came home with Swenson and is fitting in wonderfully with her other dog.

“My mission now is to connect animal lovers in the Flathead to dogs in Browning,” she said.

Swenson, who has a private counseling practice in Whitefish, put up collection boxes at numerous businesses around the Flathead and advertised for donations of money, dog kennels, dog food and blankets.

Immediately two women came forward with 400 pounds of dog food, 20 blankets and $360 in cash. Another anonymous donor sent her a check for $1,000 for the Kawaa’pomaaka Society.

The society was started four years ago by Darrell Kipp, an educator, author, filmmaker and historian who co-founded the Piegan Institute in Browning. Kipp died last month but his work with helping rescue dogs will be a part of his legacy.

Three spay and neuter clinics are conducted each year by society volunteers who work with Spay Montana. They have spayed and neutered 2,132 animals over the last four years.

“That’s thousands of unwanted pets prevented,” Swenson pointed out.

The clinics are expensive; they cost Spay Montana about $2,800 for staff, motel rooms, meals and gas.

Six women from the Browning area operate the Kawaa’pomaaka Society. Five of them are unemployed but still use every cent they can muster to help rescue dogs.

“There is no affiliation with the tribe,” Swenson said. “There’s no government money; it’s all donations.”

She emphasized that Blackfeet Reservation residents don’t abuse dogs any more than other groups, but because of the poverty in that area, many animals are left without shelter.

Not all dogs on the streets in Browning are strays, though, Swenson stressed.

“It’s the culture to let dogs run loose there,” she said.

Last week a Browning resident witnessed a motorist hit and kill a female dog. Later it was determined the dog was nursing nine pups, so the head of the Humane Society in Helena rescued those nine puppies, plus another female dog with five puppies and a pregnant dog.

“There’s no shelter and no animal control in Browning,” Swenson said. “It’s a tough life over there for those dogs.”

While the Flathead County Animal Shelter can’t take dogs from Glacier County, the Humane Society of Northwest Montana north of Kalispell will house reservation rescue dogs if it has room, she said.

Swenson is calling on other dog advocates to get involved in the rescue organization, whether it’s staging local fundraisers, gathering supplies for rescue dogs or simply raising awareness of the situation in Browning. 

She also would like to establish a network of foster caretakers for rescue dogs.

“I’m a natural bridge for help,” she said, noting her family ties to Babb. Her great-grandfather and grandfather came to St. Mary in 1913 and her cousin runs the Babb store her grandfather built. Swenson’s sister, DeeAnn Kipp, teaches school in Browning and also has helped rescue dogs there.

Help for reservation dogs in Browning has come from throughout the state. Dave Marion, a Eureka veterinarian, has volunteered to conduct all three clinics in Browning next year for free, Swenson said.

Julie Kappes, a Helena veterinarian, has donated her services for spay and neuter clinics and two years ago got a flatbed truck and brought 240 igloo-style doghouses to Browning.

The igloo doghouses are vitally needed in Browning, and if Flathead residents can donate more, Swenson said she will find a way to get them to Browning.

For more information about how to help, contact Swenson at 862-5995 or send donations to the Kaawa’ pomaaka Society, in care of Swenson, 100 Second St. E., Whitefish, MT 59937.

Features editor Lynnette Hintze may be reached at 758-4421 or by email at lhintze@dailyinterlake.com.

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