On April 7, a coyote wandered into the village of Quinhagak and got into a fight with a dog. Residents shot the coyote, sent it in for testing, and it turned out that the animal had rabies. The village had to weigh the risk of rabies with the risk of inviting a veterinarian into the community during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“My dog kicked the coyote’s ass,” said Quinhagak resident Johnathan Alexie. That morning, Alexie had woken up early and had just put on a pot of coffee.
“Just when I sat down, my dog started this really loud barking and growling and, like, she’s fighting or something,” Alexie said.
He ran outside to find his German shepherd in a battle with a coyote. He turned back inside to grab his shotgun, but he was too late.
“Next thing you know, the coyote’s across the road, limping away,” Alexie said.
Alexie said that his dog walked away from the skirmish unscathed. The coyote retreated into Alexie’s neighbor’s yard, where Mike Smith had just walked out to investigate why all the dogs in the neighborhood had gone crazy.
“My grandpa’s dogs were barking in my direction, and when I looked at the neighbor’s dogs, they were barking in my direction,” Smith said.
When Smith turned around, he saw the animal. At that moment, his aunt walked out of her house and Smith hollered at her to toss him a gun. He caught the rifle and unloaded a round at the coyote, but he missed.
“The coyote was still walking towards me, and all I had was that empty gun,” Smith said.
He sprinted into his grandpa’s house to grab another gun, and he didn’t miss a second time.
Tribal Police Chief John Peter said that this isn’t the first coyote they’ve seen in Quinhagak this year.
“This year there’s been wolves and coyotes really close to the village,” Peter said. “That’s not normal.”
He said that people think the animals wander into the village because they’re hungry.
“Hardly any caribou,” Peter said.
Peter’s observations are confirmed by data. Over the past three years, the Mulchatna caribou population has fallen by half, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Quinhagak residents say that’s causing predators to come into town, creating dangerous situations. Even more dangerous in this case, because the coyote turned out to be rabid.
On April 16, the community invited veterinarian Laurie Meythaler-Mullins to travel to Quinhagak. Over the course of a few days, she vaccinated the dog that fought the coyote and all the other dogs in Quinhagak that she could find.
“We know there’s rabies in the wildlife here, so we want every dog protected,” Meythaler-Mullins said.
While she was vaccinating dogs, Meythaler-Mullins wore a mask at all times and maintained social distancing practices. She knows that it was not an easy decision to invite someone from out of town. Like many villages, Quinhagak has strict travel restrictions in place to protect the community from COVID-19. Every single person coming in or out of Quinhagak has to get permission from Tribal Services Director Elizabeth Church, even residents.
“Every single person, yep,” Church confirmed.
She said that the vet was the first non-resident allowed into Quinhagak since the travel restrictions began. So far, only one person in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta has tested positive for COVID-19. Church says that’s evidence that the village travel restrictions are working.