Why Mexico? That’s what most people think when they learn that Pet Project Rescue does work down there. I thought it, too. After spending a few days with them, photographing and volunteering at a huge spay and neuter clinic in Cancun, experiencing what it’s really like and meeting the people who are making a difference, I can tell you why.
We arrived on November 2nd, Dia de los Muertos. Angie, with Rescate Malix (a rescue basically named for mixed-breed / mutt / street dogs) picked us up from the airport with her husband and adorable little boy. They are very passionate about animal rescue and education, and have personally rescued over 200 strays. The week before we arrived, Tropical Storm Rina hit the area, and their home and shelter facility was essentially destroyed. It sounds like they’re turning the situation into an opportunity to focus their efforts on more awareness and education, rather than physical rescue.
After a quick freshen-up, Angie picked us up again and headed to the clinic. It was held at a secondary school in Corales, a very poor part of the city. Taxi drivers always seemed surprised that we wanted to go there. The roads were incredibly bad, with giant (like, car-sized) potholes made worse by the flooding. The buildings were run-down with piecemeal, found-object solutions for walls, doors and windows. There were bags of garbage everywhere. Not many street dogs in that area though, as the continued clinics really seem to be working… in the rest of the city, you can’t go two blocks without seeing a handful of dogs.
We arrived in the afternoon when things were finishing up. It was especially quiet since the school kids had the day off for the Day of the Dead. We met the other volunteers, got a feel for how things happened, and got a few photos of animals in recovery. It’s always a bit jarring to see cats and dogs lying lifeless, waiting to wake up from anesthesia.
The following day, Thursday, we got up bright and early, slathered on some sunscreen, and headed out with Maia and Lindsay (from Pet Project Rescue) back to the clinic. We arrived to a huge group of people, waiting in line with their animals, taking shelter from the sun under some canopies in the parking lot. Some brought kennels or cages, some collars and leashes, (and a surprising number of sparkly, bedazzled collars) but some seemed to have fashioned a lead out of whatever they could find…. rope, chain, a seatbelt. However they came, they came with the same goal in mind, to stop having litters and help their pets be healthy. Going to a regular vet is often far too expensive for people, costing as much as a week’s worth of pay. When your choice is to feed your family or take the dog to vet, the choice is simple. It’s what makes clinics like these so important…. through donations and volunteers, they’re able to provide hundreds of people with care they want, they know they need, but just can’t afford. It also helps educate those who might not know they need it.
There happened to be a stray wandering around the clinic right when we got there, so Maia picked her up and got her spayed!
Some of the dogs had clearly led some rough lives, and birthed many, many litters. Many were thin and bony, dirty, and crawling with ticks. Many others, though, were very clean and well-cared-for. There’s an amazing variety of breeds down there…. people are really into Schnuazers and Mini Poodles, actually. I had an idea in my head of a “Mexican street dog” and there’s definitely plenty of mutts, most small to medium-sized, brown-ish with short hair, but there’s lots of sizes and colors that I didn’t expect.
One thing that really struck me was how friendly everyone was. The owners all had a smile for you, some commented about the “fotos” and just seemed genuinely happy. I don’t speak Spanish (I started to pick some up though!) and many of the residents and volunteers don’t speak English, but you can communicate quite a lot with gestures. Smiling, pointing to their dog, then pointing at the camera never failed!
We stayed at the clinic until mid-afternoon on Thursday, then headed out for a bit of an adventure. Tierra de Animales is a sanctuary about a half hour outside the city, literally in the jungle. Ricardo and his family have dedicated their lives to helping the abandoned, sick, abused, beaten and wandering dogs in and around Cancun. They make sure every animal is spayed/neutered, de-wormed, bathed and vaccinated. There are not nearly enough people in Mexico with the means or the desire to adopt these animals, so they work with rescues in the US and Canada (like Pet Project Rescue) to find as many loving homes as they can. There’s currently 140 dogs living at their facility. One hundred and forty. I have definitely never experienced anything like it. Some are kept separate, as they are dog- or people-aggressive, but the majority are out in the main area and were more than happy to come see us. “Enthusiastic” would be an understatement. I have to say, there’s nothing quite like being bombarded by a few dozen barking, jumping, running dogs. Wow. The most amazing part, though, was seeing Ricardo interact with the animals…. he is truly a dog whisperer, if there ever was one. They listen to him, follow him and respect him. They stop barking at his command. There were a couple scuffles amidst the commotion but he was right there, right in it, separating them, and within seconds it was over. When things settled down, Maia and Lindsay did some evaluations to see if the dogs would be a good fit for the rescue, and they’re planning to send about a dozen to Minnesota to be placed in foster homes. By then it was dark, Ricardo shared some beer with us, and we were on our way back to the city.
Before retiring to our hotels, we stopped at a small vet office to see Bella, a very special girl. She’s young, I think 6-8 months, and someone hit her in the face with a machete. She’s missing most of her right eyelid, had some skin grafts to close up her face, but is really none the worse for wear. She’s completely sweet, very affectionate, and should be up here in a couple weeks, ready to find a new home.
Friday, the final day of the clinic, was…… intense. Dustin and I only took photos for an hour or two, and when the dogs starting coming in from surgery, we were on the floor wiping up blood, picking ticks, trimming nails and whatever else needed to be done. It was busy for a while, then it was NUTS. We unfortunately have no photos of the chaos, because if we had left our posts, there was no one to take our place, and photos barely crossed my mind. Friday was the day they planned to do the most surgeries, and it ended up being the day we had the least amount of volunteers. We were in a room that was small for the regular days, and really too small for Friday. We ran out of crates, out of clean towels, and many of us were running out of patience. In a space that was maybe 8ft x 20ft, lined with full crates, we were practically stacking dogs on top of each other, waiting for them to wake up. And they were taking a long time to wake up, many of them peeing while they were out, a couple threw up, and many were waking up freaked-out and aggressive.
We stopped picking ticks, cleaning ears and trimming nails because there was no time. Dog after dog after dog was coming through the door, with no space to go, and five more waking up at the same time with no crates to put them in. There weren’t enough muzzles so they were tying ropes around their mouths to keep them from biting us or each other. Some were coming in with no documentation, we couldn’t keep up with meds. Dustin was in a smaller area of the room, maybe 5ft by 8ft, with 6-10 dogs at any given time, and hardly any help. It was during that chaos that he actually got bit on his finger, fairly deep, top and bottom. I didn’t find out until later, and I’m glad I didn’t, because I don’t think I could have handled it. The vets cleaned it, Dustin bandaged it up, and someone commented that they’d never seen someone so pale. (It’s all healed now)
I have little sense of time from that day, but it must have been at least 6 hours straight of craziness. I have to hand it to the volunteers, they did so much work and came together when it was needed the most. When it was all said and done, they performed 760 surgeries in 5 days, and at least 250 of those were on Friday. I can’t help but compare this experience with Red Lake, where they have an enormous warehouse and perform no more than 75 per day. I have no idea exactly how many dogs were in that little area at once, but I would guess at least 15 – 25 consistently throughout the day. I’m really not good with blood and medical stuff, but I had to get over it pretty quick while I was there. You had to be cautious of every dog that was waking up, because you had very little warning if they were going to turn on you. Amazingly, there were no dog fights, and only about 3 people got bitten. (Dustin’s was the worst) The other days of the clinic went very smoothly from what I hear, and all in all, it was an incredible experience, we met some wonderful people, and helped out a heck of a lot of animals.
It was so nice to take a couple days after the clinic to relax, lay on the beach and enjoy Mexico. Dustin and I took the ferry to Isla Mujeres, found a cute little hotel run by Canadians, ate some great food and drank some cervezas. We met up with Maia and Lindsay at Alison’s house before we left on Monday. She runs Isla Animals, an organization that is dedicated to reducing the population of unwanted pets on Isla through ongoing spay/neuter programs, education, vaccinations and adoption. There’s a great Q&A page on her website, addressing some of the issues and questions that are on many people’s minds.
So, why Mexico? Simply put, because they need help and we can provide it. Yes, there’s plenty of stray, abused and unwanted animals here at home that need help. There’s also a LOT of resources here to help them…. countless rescues with countless fundraisers, volunteers, fosters, and lots of people who can afford to adopt and donate. There’s a major overpopulation problem in Mexico, very little local money for shelters, vet care, food and supplies, and basically no one willing to or able to adopt. People running over animals for fun, and a government that “helps” by electrocuting whatever strays they can round up. But, there is an amazing network of people who are working very hard to lower the population, get these animals healthy, and get them to a place where someone actually wants them. Those people need our help, our donations, our support. They need us to create awareness and to have an answer when someone asks, “Why Mexico?” The only thing differentiating these animals from yours is the misfortune of being born across the border. I realized while I was there, sitting and watching the owners with their kids, their wives and their pets…. it’s a lot like providing aid to people in other countries. What kind of world would it be if we only looked out for our own? If we left everyone else to fend for themselves?
I’m so, so honored to have been invited to see this, to photograph it and to get my hands dirty. I’m very excited to continue working with Pet Project Rescue, and using these images to raise money, awareness and support for these amazing organizations. After narrowing down my photos to several hundred, I realized I can’t have a blog post that big…. So this is just a small sampling of what we documented those few days, but this won’t be the last you hear of our trip to Mexico!