Phoenix photographer Steven Sable was traveling through the vast expanse of the Navajo Nation when he pulled over about eight miles south of Page, Arizona, to take a picture of what he thought was an empty desert highway.
“We were absolutely in the middle of nowhere,” Sable said of his 2006 road trip to Antelope Canyon, accompanied by his mother and nephew. “But I opened the car door, and right there was a dog, just sitting there.”
Then and there, Sable decided to adopt and take home the wayward dog, which he fittingly named Page. In doing so, he not only invited a new companion into his home, he changed the course of his own life.
For the past decade, Sable, abandoning the comforts of a career in engineering software, has been photographing and telling the stories of the thousands of feral dogs – better known as “rez dogs” – that roam the Navajo Nation reservation.
His hope, Sable said in a telephone interview Tuesday, is to bring awareness to the rampant and largely unknown problem on the remote reservation, and in the process, support numerous rescue groups.
“I elected myself to be the marketing guy on behalf of the reservation dogs,” Sable said. “I do everything I can to use pictures and short stories to bring awareness to this problem and help raise money for the rescues.”
On the 27,000-square-mile Navajo Nation – a Native American reservation the size of West Virginia, which spans Arizona, New Mexico and Utah – it’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the amount of stray dogs that inhabit the unforgiving, barren landscape.
Even the best estimates put that number anywhere between 100,000 to 445,000 dogs.
‘It’s really no one’s fault’To better understand the issue, Tamara Martin, the president of Good Dog Rez-Q who has been working with stray dogs for more than 20 years, said it’s important to take into account the culture of the Navajo people.
“The reservation is like another country, with its own language and set of customs,” said Martin, who lives in St. Johns, Arizona. “And the poverty and lack of funding for the tribe really holds everything back for animal control programs.
“It’s really no one’s fault,” she continued, “but it’s frustrating to watch.”
It’s a common experience, Martin said, for tourists to pass through the Navajo Nation, stop at a gas station or grocery store and be greeted by a pack of uncollared, scruffy dogs.
Or, just as frequently, see a dead dog on the side of the highway.
Yet, not all the animals are feral. Some are well taken care of pets, and others are working dogs that are just not confined to a fenced in property. Though, Martin laments, the vast majority of animals are recently abandoned or have been living off the land for generations.
“Native Americans don’t want to hurt the animals, but there’s a learned indifference,” Martin said. “They take a dog they don’t want to a parking lot and just leave it there. That way it’s not their fault what happens to the dog after that, the universe decides, so to speak.”
Over the years, there have been a variety of ways that groups have tried to reduce the number of stray dogs, from spaying and neutering, to transporting the animals to other rescues around the country, or more commonly, euthanizations.
But organizations like Martin’s, which offers feral dogs a foster home to prepare them for domestic life, gives the animals a second chance. Since she started Good Dog Rez-Q, Martin estimated it has saved 500 to 600 dogs a year.
“They’re off the rez and into good homes after we get them healthy and happy,” Martin said. “I think, for the problem as a whole, progress is being made. It will happen, but probably not in my lifetime.”
Sable celebrates rescuersMartin’s organization is one of several groups around the region that benefit from Sable’s photographs and storytelling. He posts on several blogs and sells/distributes his work when he can.
Inspired by the countless workers and volunteers who dedicate their lives to help the animals, Sable sacrificed a steady job and paycheck to wake up every morning and contribute to what he considers a worthy cause.
“These people typically don’t want good press, and I understand where they’re coming from,” Sable said. “But I disagree. They should be celebrated. In this day and age, we need some feel-good stories.”
When Sable took Page home, he started to realize how intelligent the animal was, especially to be able to live off the windswept country of the Navajo Nation.
One day, for instance, Page sat down on the outdoor patio and started to eat a bee. She placed the bee between her paws, and took three bites, leaving only the stinger and poison behind.
“You’d never see a suburban dogs do that kind of thing,” Sable said.
Page has since passed away and Sable has adopted a new reservation dog, but Page still affects his life to this day.
“Rescuers often joke about ‘who saved who’ with regard to who got the better end of the deal,” Sable said. “Rescuing Page radically changed my life for the better … everything I’ve done since then is an effort to honor that moment and that dog. It’s a debt of gratitude I doubt I’ll be able to repay, but rest assured, I’ll die trying.”