This is the story of a dog yet to be named. For the time-being, she’s known as Mama. The 3- to 4- year-old shepherd/husky mix has had her share of pups. Nothing extraordinary about that, but there’s more to the nickname than procreation. She also goes by ‘The Matriarch of the North’ and she’s earned her maternal title for many reasons. I came to understand all of that the moment I met her last Sunday.
I needed a story for my column and time was running out. The rescue group I was planning to feature got tied up with a fundraising event, leaving me in a pickle. Then it dawned on me that I hadn’t visited my favourite local shelter in a while. Perhaps my old buddy James McLean at Toronto Animal Services – South Region (TAS-South) would have just the dog for me to write about. He did! When I called him in a panic, he didn’t hesitate. “I’ve got the most amazing IFAW dog for you!” he exclaimed.
I wasn’t sure what the International Fund for Animal Welfare – one of the world’s largest animal rights organizations – had to do with a dog at our local pound, but it certainly sparked my interest.
I know we have much to be proud of when it comes to the incredible efforts of our four city-run animal shelters known collectively as Toronto Animal Services. Teaming up with many reputable rescue groups over the years, TAS has been successful in saving not only the lives of abandoned pets locally but far beyond our city limits. Being the largest branch of the bunch, TAS-South has been a port in the storm for a multitude of puppy-mill victims in both Ontario and Quebec.
What I didn’t know about was the dynamic partnership formed in the last year between our local heroes and the world-wide animal advocates of IFAW in a collaborative effort to help the dogs of the North.
For the last ten years, IFAW has been working with First Nations communities in James Bay to help control dog populations. We know life is tough enough for the people of these communities where food has to be flown in from other parts of the country. The dogs are an afterthought. There are no veterinary clinics for hundreds of miles. Culling the herd when necessary has been the sad solution.
But dog lovers are everywhere and there was a public outcry from the community for a more humane response. Dogs may be part of the landscape up there, but they are far from wild. They grow up among humans and are very loyal to them. They know where they live, but they live much differently than our dogs. These dogs roam freely, following kids to school and back, and scavenging for food when table scraps are scarce. Some dogs even learn how to fish.
Things are gradually improving with IFAW’s assistance. Every spring, IFAW brings in spay/neuter mobile units. This is helpful for obvious reasons, but it also gives the IFAW team a chance to develop trusting relationships with the dogs’ owners. By educating them about proper pet care and providing vaccinations, the dogs have a better chance at maintaining good health and leading happier lives. But not everyone makes the extra effort, especially after the dogs get big. When a puppy grows to adulthood, it can sometimes be abandoned. This is where our friends at TAS come in.
Over the last year, TAS-South has been welcoming van-loads of “IFAW dogs” arriving from the North every few months. It’s a staggering 24-hour road trip for the volunteers and their four-legged passengers but nobody is complaining.
You might be wondering what these free spirits of the North are like. You may even wonder if they would make good house pets. I wondered that too, until I met Mama.
Mama arrived in Toronto towards the end of September. The IFAW volunteers said she had a remarkable way of calming the rest of the dogs on that long journey – she seemed to reassure the other dogs in a motherly way that everything would be alright. Her inner peacefulness is contagious.
Last Sunday, I met ‘The Matriarch of the North’ for myself. I thought I knew what to expect. James had told me she was amazing, even a better walker on leash than his own dogs. He had told me she was gentle, sweet and affectionate.
I had also spoken to Janice Hannah, Northern Dogs Project Manager for IFAW. She’d been watching Mama in her Northern hometown for two years before her owner gave her up. Janice remarked on how smart she was and that she would gather up her dog pals on occasion and head down to the streams to fish. She’d even had a litter of pups under the floor boards of a shed to keep them safe and warm. Mama was indeed an extraordinary dog. I knew she was sure to impress with her social skills, friendly disposition and street smarts. Mama did far more than that.
When I look at pictures of Mama, I instantly recall how she changed everything for me that day. I was not in the best spirits. We’d lost a beagle we tried desperately to save only a few days prior. It was as though she knew my heart needed lifting. She walked right up to me and gave me a kiss. Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt encouragement in that kiss as if she knew that was all I needed to carry on. Who am I to argue? Mothers always know best.
Mama is a 3- to 4-year-old shepherd/husky mix imparting motherly advice to everyone she meets at Toronto Animal Services-South Region, Horse Palace, Exhibition Place, 140 Princes Blvd., Toronto, 416-338-6668.