Rita Svisdahl has spent her entire life among animals and her dedication to her “critters,” the term she affectionately uses for her household pets (three dogs and four cats), as well as the ravens and crows that hang around her back deck by the Bella Coola river, is obvious.
“When I was young I was way up Valley on a farm,” she recalls. “It doesn’t seem far now but it was then. There wasn’t a lot of other kids around so I was alone a lot, but I had my critters with me all the time.”
Rita is one of three hard-working and dedicated women with the Valley’s own animal rescue service: Dog Town Bella Coola. Along with Robyn Willis and Krista Gunderson, Rita works day and night tending to dogs and cats of all shapes and sizes.
“I’ve been doing this for about seven years,” she said. “Being downtown I’m definitely in the trenches; just last month we took out 25 puppies from just three mothers.”
“Stray” dogs and cats have long been a fact of life in Bella Coola, and throughout the years there has been a variety of different efforts to combat the problems that arise from overpopulation and neglect. Rita says she receives calls at all hours from concerned community members, and in more extreme cases the RCMP do get involved.
“We had this one dog that was so emaciated that the RCMP actually called me to come and retrieve the animal off its chain,” she shared. “One week in my care and he looked like a completely different dog.”
Rita says she’s not sure how often charges are pressed against negligent pet owners in the Valley, but stresses that she doesn’t think criminal charges are always the answer when it comes to dealing with people who have neglected their animals. She also praised the group of RCMP officers in Bella Coola at present, saying they have been more than willing to help.
“Saying someone isn’t educated isn’t really the right way to address it,” she explained. “I think people’s awareness around pet ownership just needs to be increased. For starters, people need to understand the importance of spaying and neutering their animals.
“Having an animal isn’t much different than having a kid. You have a responsibility to feed and care for that animal and ensure that it’s cared for while you’re gone. For example, if you don’t provide your dog with adequate attention, it will seek comfort in a pack, and that’s where a lot of these problems start.”
Rita estimates that in her time with Dog Town they have sent out approximately 700 animals; an average of 100 per year. The majority of these end up with the Williams Lake SPCA, which will often send a volunteer to meet Rita or her partner Fred in Nimpo Lake, or flying out with Pacific Coastal to Big Heart Rescue in Vancouver, where they are re-homed.
“Barb Ridge from Big Heart Rescue’s willingness to help us help the critters is what kept me going,” Rita explained. “The SPCA being involved in our community has helped lighten the load, and I’d really like to thank my husband Fred and daughter Danika for not only caring enough to be a part of everything, but for the patience and tolerance of all the fostering, worries and successes.
“The vet recently told me that 70 percent of the cats in Yaletown’s Cat Cafe are from Williams Lake, and a good majority of those are from Bella Coola,” Rita said. “We’re really lucky we get such great support from these organizations because we just aren’t equipped in Bella Coola to have a proper shelter or adoption program.”
Dog Town Bella Coola does receive some funds to operate from the CCRD’s Grant in Aid program, the WLDCU’s Donation and Sponsorship Program, End of the Road Coffee Company and numerous individual donors from inside and outside the community.
These funds are used for veterinary spay/neuter assistance, flea and tick medication, and gas money to transport animals. When they can, Bosley’s Pet Food Plus also provides dog and cat food.
“Often people will just come up and give me twenty dollars and say they just want to help out,” Rita shares. “And it really does, that money is used for gas to drive around and pick up these animals. Everyone knows where I work, so I’m not hard to find.”
Rita also praised the hospital staff for their willingness to equip Dog Town with the necessary supplies to treat sick and injured animals, such as syringes and medical supplies.
Rita says that while she enjoys the work and it’s rewarding, it’s also hard. Although she’s only lost one kitten during her entire seven years, the possibility of losing an animal is tough to take, and she is constantly on guard when animals are brought in sick or injured.
“Puppies and kittens are adorable for a few months, there’s no doubt about it.” she said, “But like everything, they grow up. Having a pet is a 10 to 15 year commitment, not just a few months.”
If finances are a barrier for those who want to spay or neuter their pets, Dog Town’s Robyn Willis says there is help available.
“With the return of veterinary care to our community an exciting new initiative is being introduced,” said Robyn. “ In cooperation with Dr. Ross Hawkes of the Williams Lake Veterinary Hospital, Dog Town has partnered with the Okanagan Small Dog Rescue Society to bring their spay and neuter program to the Valley. If applicants make less that $25,000 annually, the Society will spay or neuter their pet for just $25. Valley owners are encouraged to contact Rita, Robyn or Krista to apply for funding assistance.”
There are also funds available through the SPCA’s Pat Lauren Fund to help with the cost of spaying, neutering and permanent identification for dogs and cats of low income owners in the Williams Lake and District areas, and once again Valley owners can contact Robyn Willis at 250 982 2557 or find her on Facebook.