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Two stray dogs were fed with canned pet food on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Two stray dogs were fed with canned pet food on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Julie Cassadore fed a couple of strays by pouring two cans of dog food onto the concrete ground outside a metal-sided warehouse that the nonprofit Geronimo Animal Rescue Team has called home since the pandemic.

Now, this tribally-owned building, located in the Apache capital of San Carlos, is about to be torn down.

“Animal Control did inform us,” said Cassadore, “but we did go before the tribal council, and they did agree to help us get another building, because of the services we provide for the community.”

This warehouse is where the nonprofit Geronimo Animal Rescue Team has been based in the Apache capital of San Carlos since the pandemic.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

This warehouse is where the nonprofit Geronimo Animal Rescue Team has been based in the Apache capital of San Carlos since the pandemic.

There are plenty of dogs and cats, and many strays, on tribal reservations. But the 61-year-old Cassadore from the San Carlos Apache Tribe has made it her mission to take care of them.

They’re part of everyday life on reservations across Indian Country. Many tribal communities consider pets as protectors, so Cassadore is seen as a protector of protectors.

She was even recently named one of three finalists for the Humane Society of the U.S.’ ‘More Than a Pet Community Hero Award,’ which honors people who improve access and equity to pet care in their communities.

Cassadore loaded the bed of a pickup truck with bagged and canned pet food, along with a box of medicine for those animals most in need. She and her team of some 15 volunteers save the canned food, so it’s easier for owners to hide medications inside the meals of sick pets.

“We’ll throw this dog food back there, because the van broke down,” said Cassadore. “I’m looking to get that fixed.”

Geronimo Animal Rescue Team co-founder Julie Cassadore and volunteer Harley Gilbert Jr. load the bed of his pickup truck with pet food and medicine.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Geronimo Animal Rescue Team co-founder Julie Cassadore and volunteer Harley Gilbert Jr. load the bed of his pickup truck with pet food and medicine.

She’s usually seen driving around the community in a cargo van, but it recently blew a head gasket on the highway following a water pump failure.

“I told her if anything went wrong, let me know and I would get it fixed for her,” said Debbie Chapman. “Well, it has broken down multiple times and she figures out how to pay for it on her own.”

Chapman, who owns Desert Cross Veterinary Hospital, bought that vehicle for Cassadore to transport pets from the remote reservation some 70 miles away to her practice in Thatcher.

“And I mean, bless her heart,” added Chapman. “Even to this day, she does so much for the people of San Carlos. And since Julie’s involvement, we absolutely have more people from the reservation bringing animals in, trying to do better.”

At least three times a week, Cassadore takes this trip and spending up to $1,000 in gas monthly, to access emergency veterinary care. Because none exists back home, and not just for dogs and cats, but even cows, pigs and horses.

The sprawling 1.8-million-acre reservation also has lots of strays.

“We lack so many services, especially for animals. Sadly, a lot of them just end up dying,” said Cassadore, “and that’s where we want it to make a difference. We are just using our own resources, meaning our own vehicles, our own money.”

Not a single cent comes from the San Carlos Apache Tribal Council, so the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team solely survives off charity and donations.

Chapman, who also nominated Cassadore for the Humane Society’s national award that the winner is picked by the public through online voting until May 17, pressed that she “doesn’t want the recognition.”

Julie Cassadore of the San Carlos Apache Tribe was recently named one of three finalists for the Humane Society of the U.S.’ ‘More Than a Pet Community Hero Award,’ which honors people who improve access and equity to pet care in their communities.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Julie Cassadore of the San Carlos Apache Tribe was recently named one of three finalists for the Humane Society of the U.S.’ ‘More Than a Pet Community Hero Award,’ which honors people who improve access and equity to pet care in their communities.

“In all honesty, she needs the money, because she’ll drive around and beg, borrow money to put in the fuel,” added Chapman. “Let’s be real. It takes money and she needs more help from a financial standpoint, more than anything else.”

“Nationally, access to veterinary care is an often overlooked crisis,” said field surgical director Ahne Simonson is with the Humane Society’s Rural Area Veterinary Services, which donates to the nonprofit.

They’ve supported the direct care of 2,000 animals last year alone by covering $400,000 in medical costs, like emergency visits and surgeries, on top of distributing 345,000 pounds of pet food and $1.5 million worth of supplies to San Carlos Apaches.

“That’s a lot of hard work, and it’s really emotional and draining. Julie has put in so many long days,” added Simonson. “So, we have been able to find funding to support many of the challenges that Julie has vocalized.”

But it’s still not enough. Each month, Cassadore pays roughly another $500 for food and $2,500 in vet fees out of pocket.

With only 35 percent of the reservation employed, and a median family income of nearly $39,000, the San Carlos Apache Tribe has long struggled with crushing poverty.

It’s not a uniquely Indigenous issue. The Humane Society estimates that approximately 20 million pets live in homes affected by poverty nationwide, and 70 percent of them have never seen a veterinarian.

Still, affording the costs of pet basics, let alone expensive veterinary bills, is a financial burden for many Apaches.

“I know what it feels like,” said Cassadore, who once begged for dog food as she tried to find a job and dealt with a divorce. “And so, that is a lot of the reason why I started this too, because I know firsthand what it feels like to not be able to provide for your animals.”

Becoming a pet owner on the reservation isn’t always a choice. Dogs are often dumped. Others roam off-leash, only to end up getting hit by vehicles.

Sometimes, the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team is too late.

“I mean, even for the ones that are ready to die in our arms, when we find them,” added Cassadore, “we’re going to show them what love is, knowing that they might not make it to the veterinarian.”

A dead dog lies in the road along Indian Route 170 on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

A dead dog lies in the road along Indian Route 170 on the San Carlos Apache Reservation.

That even means stopping to bury them, according to rescue team volunteer Harley Gilbert Jr.

“When you see dogs and they’re dead, none of the people wanna pick them up and move them on the side or bury them,” said Gilbert. “And that’s what I do.”

Whenever Gilbert isn’t busy working part-time at the Apache Gold Casino’s Cutter Quick Stop convenience store, he can be found helping Cassadore out inside the warehouse facility, before his morning shift or during his days off.

Gilbert has got six dogs, or, as he called them, furbabies.

“They’re like our kids. People really think that we’re weird, but we’re not,” added Gilbert. “We just care for dogs, like back in the old days.”

But on that April morning, Gilbert drove as the group took pet essentials to three Apaches without transportation, including Darlene McIntosh, who lives in a tent-like shelter.

Veronica Martinez holds onto a shipment of pet food that the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team delivered to her household in late-April 2024.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Veronica Martinez holds onto a shipment of pet food that the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team delivered to her household in late-April 2024.

“This is Naki, which means ‘two’ in Apache, and that one over there is Jenny.” said McIntosh, “That one is Precious. And that’s Scruff, that black-and-white one, and there’s another one here, brown one, Boyfriend. … They’re just strays that hang around.”

Cassadore explained its Apaches like McIntosh, who simply had the heart to take them in. But each of them come with their fair share of medical problems, like Scruffy, who had a bloody nose, believed to be caused by tick fever.

“She gave me some pills for him and it stopped,” added McIntosh. “That really helped him a lot.

Valley fever, fleas, ticks and even Parvo, are among some of the most prevalent illnesses these rez-pets face, so Cassadore routinely checks up on those animals and their owners. Cassadore even educates and instructs members, like McIntosh, on how to administer such treatments, as she delivers them.

Last year, 8,700 treatments were provided to pets through her nonprofit and its partners.

Without those regular deliveries of medicine she got from Cassadore’s group, McIntosh insisted “he probably would have died, “but thanks to them, my animals are still alive.”

Darlene McIntosh tries to call over her stray pets as the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team made a daily check-up visit in late-April 2024.

Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ

Darlene McIntosh tries to call over her stray pets as the Geronimo Animal Rescue Team made a daily check-up visit in late-April 2024.

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