CASS LAKE -- Edgar the cat showed off his ability to walk on a leash in front of a crowd of delighted volunteers whose amusement was covered by surgical masks.

The fluffy feline was one of 62 animals surrendered during Leech Lake Legacy’s wellness clinic and surrender event this weekend and is now on his way to a new home.

One hundred and three other pets were given vaccines and wellness checks by a volunteer veterinarian.

June 26 and 27 marked the local organization’s first event since raising the funds to save their building -- the former movie theater in Cass Lake -- and a prolonged break due to the coronavirus situation.

Zeus the bulldog puppy runs with volunteer Engress Clark toward Molly Bozvay during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Zeus the bulldog puppy runs with volunteer Engress Clark toward Molly Bozvay during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

A global pandemic and financial uncertainty couldn’t stop the group of dedicated volunteers from doing everything they could to help Leech Lake critters -- but it did slow them down for a few months.

While volunteers and pet owners seemed glad to be back, it was not in the usual fashion.

Jill Hansen-Taitt hands a puppy off to volunteer Engress Clark after a wellness check. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Jill Hansen-Taitt hands a puppy off to volunteer Engress Clark after a wellness check. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

COVID-19 precautions

A sign leading into the Leech Lake Legacy building read, “STOP. This means you. Do not enter. Only approved volunteers are allowed in building.” To be approved, volunteers had to have their temperatures checked, complete a health screening and wear a mask.

Rules were particularly strict as most of the volunteers drove up from the Twin Cities metro area and wanted to ensure they weren’t putting Leech Lakers at risk.

A sign on the door of Leech Lake Legacy's building during the organization's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
A sign on the door of Leech Lake Legacy's building during the organization's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“There aren’t too many cases up here and we want to keep it like that,” Leech Lake Legacy Director Jenny Fitzer explained. “We don’t want to be the people bringing COVID-19 to the reservation.”

The clinic operated under rigorous safety procedures. Contrary to the usual long lines at past clinics, animals were seen by pre-scheduled appointment only. Communication during the appointments was handled via phone.

Clients were asked to arrive with their pets leashed or in carriers and to wear a face-covering. Pets were picked up “curbside” by volunteers and taken into the clinic alone, while pet owners waited in cars.

This proved to be risky, Fitzer explained, as early in the event Friday, she was pummeled by a mastiff that was nervous about entering the clinic alone.

“Something freaked him out and he started to go ballistic,” she said. “They ended up treating him outside.”

“It’s definitely harder on the animals to not be with their owners,” Fitzer added, “but the fact is we are grateful we are even able to be here. We just have to make concessions, of course.”

Ordinarily, the building is full of tables of free pet food and donated pet supplies for pet owners to take home, but due to COVID-19 only volunteers were allowed in the building, so food was delivered curbside to those who requested it.

The event was supposed to include spay and neuter surgeries, but the organization that usually comes to Cass Lake to perform them has stopped due to the pandemic. This weekend’s event was limited to vaccines, dewormer, flea/tick preventative, and nail trims.

Surrendered animals were also accepted all weekend. These animals were transferred to other animal shelters around the state to be adopted out.

Veterinary technician Kris Stresemann hands off a dog and a bag of materials to volunteer Jane O'Shea during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Veterinary technician Kris Stresemann hands off a dog and a bag of materials to volunteer Jane O'Shea during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Glad to be back

Volunteers this weekend all seemed to have two things in common: a deep love of animals and a long history of knowing Jenny Fitzer. They were also glad to be back in the swing of things.

One volunteer, Craig Berdan, began serving time with the organization after he fostered an animal rescued through Leech Lake Legacy. Another volunteer, Engress Clark, works at a veterinary clinic in Bemidji and recently began volunteering with Leech Lake Legacy after working with the group in the past.

Fitzer said she heard overwhelmingly from the 25 volunteers how much they missed the program over the last few months -- most haven’t been involved with an event since February.

Volunteers wash out animal crates during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Volunteers wash out animal crates during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“We all love the clinic so much and you don’t know how good it is until it’s gone,” she said. “When it’s taken away from you it really makes you grateful for what we’ve been able to build up there.”

Filling a need

There are no veterinarians in the Cass Lake, and many vets in surrounding areas are expensive, Fitzer explained. Leech Lake Legacy events are the only way some of these animals will receive healthcare.

During this weekend’s clinic, all available appointments filled up quickly.

A wellness visit with vaccines through Leech Lake Legacy costs only $15, and no one is turned away due to inability to pay. On average at a regular vet clinic, a checkup could cost upwards of $50, with vaccinations on top of this.

Volunteers carry surrendered cats to a van during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. The cats were taken to an animal shelter in Pequot Lakes. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Volunteers carry surrendered cats to a van during Leech Lake Legacy's wellness event in Cass Lake on Friday. The cats were taken to an animal shelter in Pequot Lakes. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)


Future plans

The group still plans to renovate their recently purchased space to better fit their needs -- as operating out of an old movie theater can be tricky in more ways than one. Fitzer said the group hopes to flatten out the sloped theater floor and install a surgical suite, so spay/neuter surgeries can be performed onsite.

“The biggest thing, of course, is the surgery suite and leveling out the floor, they’re our two top priorities,” she said. “Our usual connection for spay and neuter doesn’t look like they’re going to be able to come up at all this year, so we’re looking into other options. So if we could actually have a spay/neuter team on site it would be much easier.”

Renovations are on hold as the necessary permits are tied up due to COVID-19 restrictions, but Fitzer hopes to get these projects underway soon.

Volunteers Molly Bozvay and Engress Clark pet Zeus, a bulldog puppy, prior to his wellness check. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
Volunteers Molly Bozvay and Engress Clark pet Zeus, a bulldog puppy, prior to his wellness check. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Currently, the next wellness clinic is scheduled for August 21-22, but this is dependent on the current coronavirus situation.

To request an appointment at a future event, fill out a clinic services request form online: leechlakelegacy.org/hidden/services-form. Contact (866) 534-2293 or leechlakelegacy@gmail.com with questions.