Dogs sniff out diseases in animals that are important to the Blackfeet tribe's traditions

Kenneth Cook used a mallet as well as a chisel in order to break into the skull of a pig in the gravel driveway in front his house on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, northwestern Montana.

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NewsEditor
02 July 2022 Saturday 00:20
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Dogs sniff out diseases in animals that are important to the Blackfeet tribe's traditions

Kenneth Cook used a mallet as well as a chisel in order to break into the skull of a pig in the gravel driveway in front his house on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, northwestern Montana.

Cook intended to use the brains of the pigs for brain tanning. This practice has been used by Indigenous peoples for thousands upon thousands of years.

To make leather, the brains are mashable in water. Cook stated that the brain's essential fatty acids soften hides and give them a beautiful white color before they are smoked to waterproof them.

This story was created in partnership with Kaiser Health News.

"Brain will give the strongest and longest-lasting leather. He said that people love it because of this.

Cook uses hides he has tanned to make drums and moccasins as well as tribal regalia. Cook is an Indigenous person who tans hides using the brains of the animals they hunt. Cook, however, has switched to using pig brains for his tanning due to chronic wasting disease that affects deer, elk, and moose.

Chronic wasting disease is caused when misfolded proteins known as prions cause brain damage and other bodily functions to deteriorate the animal until it dies aEUR" usually within a few years. Since its discovery in wild animals in Colorado and Wyoming more than 40 years ago, the disease has spread to herds all across North America.

Only one case of chronic wasting disease was found in a white-tailed deer from the Blackfeet Reservation. However, once it is present, wildlife managers say it is impossible to eradicate. According to Souta Calling Last (Blackfeet researcher, executive director of Indigenous Vision, a non-profit cultural and educational organization), the disease is already causing tribal members to abandon or alter traditional practices such as brain tanning.

Calling Last is concerned that the spread of chronic wasting diseases will make it difficult for tribal members to eat wild game. Some families rely on the meat of deer, elk, and moose that they can hunt for several months.

This is where the dogs step in. Calling Last was awarded a $75,000 federal grant for a year-long study to train dogs that can detect chronic wasting disease (CWD) and toxic waste. This will allow them to identify people who hunt wild animals and collect traditional plants. This project is intended to protect tribal members' health and to inform them where toxic waste was found.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends people avoid eating meat from animals that have tested positive for prions. However, there is no evidence that the disease can be transmitted. Brent Race, Rocky Mountain Laboratories researcher, said that the possibility of prions infecting people is not ruled out. Because it contains the most prions, brain matter, which Cook uses in brain tanning, would be particularly dangerous.

He said, "It's definitely a high risk."

Calling Last, standing near a wetland of cattails, said that the Working Dogs for Conservation dogs will detect chronic wasting disease (elk scat) at sites that provide water for herds. This is done to alert wildlife managers as soon as possible.

They will also sniff out mink, otter scat to detect chemicals and contaminants in illegal dumpsites for old furniture, appliances, and cars.

These toxic substances can be detected and protected tribal members who use plants such as mint to make tea or willows for sweat lodges.

She said, "Healthy and strong people are people with good spirit and good minds."

Calling Last will send soil, water and scat samples to be tested from areas where dogs have alerted their handlers in order to confirm that they have chronic wasting disease. Michele Vasquez, a Working Dogs for Conservation trainer, said that Calling Last's project shows dogs can do this work. The organization hopes to expand its efforts across the country.

Vasquez said that while researchers at the University of Pennsylvania's veterinarian school have been investigating whether dogs can detect chronic diseases in the laboratory, the Blackfeet project is Vasquez's first attempt in the field.

Training was held at a facility just outside Missoula, Mont. Vasquez put Charlie, her 4-year-old black Labrador retriever and sniffer, through the paces to detect black-footed ferret smells in several containers. This is just one of the many scents that Vasquez's excitable Lab can detect.

"They all have something unique in them. She said that we will have distractions. These distracters could be food or smells from other animals dogs may encounter on the field.

Joe Hagberg, Blackfet Fish and Wildlife Department, said that he hopes the dogs can determine if chronic wasting disease is still present in the area where it was first discovered on the eastern part of the reservation.

Standing on the bank of a flooded stream near the spot where the positive animal had been shot, he stated that "it will help us out tremendously." Hagberg took several deer with sickly looks to help him understand the severity of the disease after the 2020 detection.

He said that 54 deer were taken out of the area, which covers a 10-mile radius. "All of us had negative tests throughout those ones."

Hagberg was happy with the results but said that his resources to search for the disease in other areas within the reservation of 2,400-square miles are limited.

Hagberg hopes that the soon-to be working dogs will help him in his efforts to control the disease. It can spread unnoticed for many years, decimating herds.

She plans to publish her research and to seek additional funding to replicate the work for other tribes in Montana and Wyoming. Many of these tribal nations are located in areas where chronic wasting diseases are more common.

Calling Last: The Blood Tribe, one the Blackfeets' sister tribes in Canada has already received grant funding for a similar project.

Calling Last stated, "I believe that being able just to monitor it and record it would be a big victory for any nation."

KHN (Kaiser Health News), a national newsroom, produces in-depth journalism on health issues. It is an independent editorial program of KFF (Kaiser Family Foundation).

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