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Serious ‘Rez’ Dog Problem

PINEHILL — The day after Christmas, 8-year-old Tomas Jay Henio spent the evening alone, sledding down a snowy hill near his mother’s house a few miles from the town market.

Neither the boy’s mother nor stepfather heard screams or barks, they say, which could have alerted them to the horrific scene.

“He was already dead when we picked him up,” stepfather Keith Comosona said Sunday as he bought groceries from the small reservation town’s only market.

“We don’t know exactly how it happened. We just know the dogs attacked him.”

Sunday school teacher Belma Beaver gathers her thoughts about former student Tomas Henio, who died Dec. 26. Beaver used to give Henio a ride to and from Sunday school every week.

At least nine dogs, the largest of which weighed about 100 pounds, mauled Henio to death Wednesday evening in Pinehill, about 55 miles south of Gallup, according to police and family. Henio was a second-grader at Ramah Elementary and oldest of four boys.

The dogs, described as “just plain ol’ dogs” not of any one breed, were immediately shipped off and euthanized. One of them vomited human hair as animal control came to pick them up, Comosona said.

The animals were in the care of the boy’s great-uncle, a “dog lover” who had become sort of a collector over the years, feeding and sheltering animals abandoned on the side of the road at the base of the hill, family members said.

“Some people just drop off dogs there because they don’t need them,” said an uncle, Fidel Apache. “He just took them in.”

Apache said the dogs have a history of violence toward livestock. The pack had killed four goats earlier this month, he said.

Comosona said he and his wife, Yolanda Henio, were attending to the boy’s brothers, ages 1, 2, and 3, while he played outside in the snow. They thought Tomas was at his aunt’s house, which sits about 500 feet away and is where the boy often stayed the night. Late on Wednesday, Comosona said he called his sister-in-law about Tomas’ whereabouts, and the aunt hadn’t seen him.

That’s when they found the boy.

“I just don’t want to think about it,” Comosona said. “We just don’t want to be around the house, with all the memories we have there.”

Henio’s body was sent to the Office of the Medical Investigator in Albuquerque.

After the autopsy, the boy will be buried in a small family plot with about 20 relatives, the youngest of whom is a stillborn baby from more than a decade ago, according to relative and Pinehill church pastor Freddie Lee.

A good boy

Tomas Henio was remembered Sunday in church halls and grocery store waiting lines as a fun-loving boy with a sharp memory and love for pepperoni pizza. At the Pinehill market, a donations can for the family has filled up each evening since the attack.

An un-collared dog peers across a field near Pinehill, N.M., on Sunday. Approximately 445,000 dogs, most of them without owners, live on the Navajo Nation.

Henio’s Sunday school teacher, Belma Beaver, said the boy was one of the best at memorizing Bible passages and often sang gospel verses as he tended to the family sheep along with his grandmother.

“It’s hard. It’s hard to cope with it, especially a child,” Beaver said in her Sunday school classroom. “He was barely raised, hadn’t ever seen the world. He wouldn’t hurt a spider or an ant. Nothing. He was that kind of child.”

Last week, Beaver took parents aside and asked them to break the news to their kids. She said Henio’s classmates are still trying to process the loss, and she reassures them that Henio is in heaven.

“All we can do is comfort each other,” Beaver said. “They’re still hurt, the way he suffered.”

Henio’s grandmother raised him until he was about 6 years old, before she left to care for her eldest daughter in Alamogordo. Since a couple of years ago, the boy’s mother and stepfather have raised him, according to family members.

Henio’s grandmother, who left Alamogordo on Sunday to meet her family in Pinehill, raised the boy to be open and curious, Beaver said, so he wasn’t shy and withdrawn like many of his Sunday school classmates.

“The grandma didn’t raise him like that,” Beaver said. “He was an open child.”

Lee, the pastor, said the boy was always courteous and respectful and commended him for not interrupting his parents during the service, a common occurrence among other kids, he said.

Henio’s stepfather, Comosona, said the holiday season will, from now on, carry haunting memories of his stepson.

“He was smart, happy,” Comosona said, “Always curious about what was going to happen next.”

Feral dog problem

The attack has left the community reeling, and each Pinehill resident appears to have an opinion about whom to blame.

The parents should have kept track of their son, some said Sunday. Others blamed the local government for not keeping tabs on the packs of feral dogs. Still others point to a combination of the two, or they wonder why the great-uncle kept the dogs after their history of violence against livestock.

What is largely agreed upon, however, is that the number of dogs roaming un-collared and unchecked throughout the reservation is cause for concern, particularly after the attack. The boy’s uncle, Apache, said the number of feral dogs has been a problem for a long time.

“It is a problem around here,” he said. “I see kids playing around. There’s dogs everywhere.”

Roughly 445,000 dogs — four or five per household — are present on the Navajo Nation, most of which are free, said Kevin Gleason, the reservation’s animal control manager, in a 2011 Associated Press article.

That year, a pack of dogs near Gallup was found tearing into the body of 55-year-old Larry Armstrong, who died from the bites.

Most reservation dogs are not spayed or neutered, nor are they leashed, said Lee, the Pinehill pastor. That’s because many dogs are tasked with shepherding sheep, and transportation and costs prevent people from taking their dogs to free spay/neuter events that are sometimes provided by the Indian Health Service.

Lee said he hopes the local chapter government will work toward providing more of these services in addition to tackling the feral dog problem.

“They’ve been trying to control it, but it’s a big place here,” Lee said. “They can’t keep control of everyone’s dog.”

A Navajo language radio station that broadcasts through the area frequently recommends spaying and neutering animals, Lee said, and he anticipates an increase in those public service announcements after the attack.

“It’s not really a problem until something like this happens,” he said.

Leyton Jay Cougar, the executive director of the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary near Pinehill, said he and other residents are deeply concerned about the number of potentially dangerous dogs on the reservation. They take between 40 and 60 “rez dogs” to a Denver shelter every couple months.

“There’s a whole militia of us out here who are saving the dogs’ lives,” he said.

Cougar said that, every once in awhile, mobile spay and neuter vans roll through the reservation, but they fill up right away. He also said animal control officers routinely round up and euthanize huge numbers of animals.

“There’s somebody out there who’s got pocket change that could fix this,” he said.

Placing blame

Henio’s family will meet this evening at Lee’s church, a few miles down the road from the Henio home. There they will discuss funeral arrangements and other logistics that come with burying a child.

As for who is to blame for the attack, Apache said that might require further discussion.

“They’re just kind of blaming the dogs for now,” he said.

“We’re just all sad about it. It’s been hard for us.”
— This article appeared on page A1 of the Albuquerque Journal