POLSON — Maybe better than almost anyone else, Filip Panusz knows the problem with stray dogs in Lake County is real.
As director of the Mission Valley Animal Shelter, Panusz fields numerous phone calls every week from people worried about the packs of dogs wandering the streets or upset after having to dodge a canine skirting across the highway.
“When I get those calls, it’s tempting for me to just get in my car and go try to help those people or look for the strays,” Panusz said. “I know I can’t do it. I’m only one person. We need people to help us make a difference.”
In the next month or so, Panusz hopes that a small cadre of people passionate about canines will step forward to be the shelter’s eyes and ears in the communities of Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan and Pablo.
The volunteers will serve on the newly formed Advisory Councils on Community Canines.
The prerequisites are a passion for helping the community, a desire to rescue animals and a willingness to listen with respect and sensitivity to diverse voices and ideas.
Panusz credits the idea to a pair of St. Ignatius strays that now go by the names Teddy and Vixen.
This past summer, a woman in St. Ignatius had let him know that she was worried about the pair after their mother had been found with a bullet between her eyes.
“She was worried that they might end up dead, too,” he said.
So Panusz began stopping by St. Ignatius to see if he could catch the pair and take them to the shelter, where they would be safe and could eventually find a new home.
He found that while the male dog was willing to come up to him, the female was skittish and feral.
“I knew right away that she was going to be a big challenge,” Panusz said. “No one could catch her. I knew that I would have one chance and that would be all. If I missed, she would never let me get close again.”
Over the course of a couple of months, he slowly gained her trust. One day, Panusz convinced her to follow the treat in his hand into a fenced backyard.
But there was a problem. He didn’t have anyone there to close the gate behind her.
After several phone calls, he finally caught up with the woman who had let him know about the two dogs. She came as quickly as she could and helped him catch Vixen.
The two dogs are now at home at the shelter. Panusz hopes to find a foster home for the pair in the near future.
“It was one of those situations where I needed some help in a community that’s not close to the shelter,” he said. “If I hadn’t been able to get in touch with her, I don’t know what I would have done. If the woman hadn’t contacted me in the first place, I would have never known about the dogs at all. There’s a good chance they would have ended up just like their mother.”
Panusz said he knew right then the shelter needed to reach out to find people who wanted to make a difference for stray dogs.
The hope is the four councils will each have about five or six members who will be ready to step forward when there is a need. One might serve as the person law enforcement could call when there is an issue. Others might work with the schools. Still others might be willing to help when an emergency arises.
“It’s not going to be a full-time job by any means,” he said.
Panusz is also hopeful the new councils will all have tribal representation to help bridge the cultural gap that sometimes exists when it comes to community ownership of dogs.
“We can’t be effective here if we don’t have that,” he said.
The plan calls for having the new councils in place by May. Several people have already expressed interest in serving.
“Having those eyes and ears in the community can make a big difference,” Panusz said. “I know there are a lot of people here who love dogs and they want to find a way to be engaged in their communities. This is a way for them to be engaged in a very tangible way. They will be able to see the results.”
“They’ll know that they were ones who stepped forward to pull that dog off the highway or saved that litter of puppies who may have died without them being there,” he said.
Anyone interested in learning more can call Panusz at 406-883-5312.