Cross-Border Collaboration Aids Efforts in Coastal Oaxaca to Sterilize Street Animals, Enhance Pet Care

Screen Shot 2015-11-02 at 9.18.55 AMBy Deborah Van Hoewyk

It’s a commonplace that Mexico is overrun with stray and starving dogs and cats—while no reliable sources have ventured to guess at how many, an animal rescue organization in the Yucatan has used tourism research to estimate that over 4,000,000 Americans won’t visit Mexico because they’re appalled at the situation.

And reports of “euthanasia” to lessen the numbers are often scandalous. While millions of strays and unwanted pets are put down every year in the U.S., American “kill shelters” and veterinarians mostly use phenobarbitol to achieve humane elimination of the animals. In Mexico, euthanasia is often accomplished by electrocution, but there is also an Internet video of a dog being clubbed to death in the municipio of Santa Maria Huatulco last March. Allegedly, there were multiple dogs and actions were carried out by employees of the municipal kennel, but as always in such cases, information about the video and its contents is inconsistent and sensationalized. Nonetheless, the municipal administration issued a statement early this summer saying that, in response to public condemnation of the video, they fired the kennel director on March 2, and the Minister of Health, whose responsibilities include animal health, on June 15. (The dates indicate the kennel director was fired immediately, before the video ever made the rounds of social network sites.)

From Scandal to Sterilization

While the video and reactions to it cast a very dark cloud over the municipio, the silver lining is a marked increase in sterilization campaigns, plus a new “Responsible Owner” (Dueño Responsable) campaign to emphasize the benefits of sterilization and promote a “culture of care” for pets throughout the municipio. Under the direction of Mayra Anlehu Guillén, the current head of Economic Development and Health (Regiduría de Desarrollo Económico y Salud Huatulco) for the municipio, the health administration is also highlighting the value of cooperation with nonprofits (Asociaciones Civiles), both domestic and international, in this effort.

The campaigns began last July in the neighboring municipio of San Pedro Pochutla, with a three-day clinic rotating through Pochutla, San José Chacalapa, and Puerto Angel; sterilization services were free, and were jointly provided by the municipal department of health, the state-level health service for animal diseases (Programa Zoonosis de los Servicios de Salud), and the department of indigenous affairs (Área de Asuntos Indígenas). The focus was on reducing the overpopulation of street animals and associated health risks, and encouraging responsible ownership.

November saw three sterilization campaigns that reached from Puerto Escondido to Santa Cruz Huatulco, and up through seven locations in the municipio of Santa Maria Huatulco. For the first time ever, these campaigns were linked, resulting in a total of 546 no-cost sterilizations of cats and dogs, accompanied by treatment for internal and external parasites.

In Zipolite and Puerto Angel, the local nonprofit organization TerreXtra, organized by Tintin Kodandaram to work on local environmental issues (, held clinics that spayed and neutered a total of 226 dogs and cats. Tintin’s surgery team came from Pets for Life, an independent group of vets from the Puerto Vallarta area that contracts through PEACEAnimals, a US/Mexico nonprofit from Puerto Vallarta and Portland, Oregon.

The municipal government of Santa Maria Huatulco coordinated its clinics with Snipsisters, a Canadian nonprofit. Through its department of health services, the municipio held clinics in the towns of Paso Ancho, El Morro, Guarumbo, Colonia December 8, Arroyo Xúchitl, Hacienda Vieja, and Todos Santos, sterilizing a total of 118 dogs and cats.

Snipsisters has been holding clinics in the Bahias de Huatulco area for four years, and has covered Cuatunalco and Coyula to the west, Zimatan and Barra de la Cruz to the east, and this year Huatulco in the center; they have been working with the Pets for Life team since they started holding clinics. The Snipsisters/Pets for Life clinic in Santa Cruz Huatulco sterilized a total of 202 animals, as well as raising money on the spot to treat two cases of canine transmissible veneral tumor (TVT), and to provide two amputations, one eye removal, and one euthanasia.

How They Did It in Santa Cruz

A Snipsisters clinic is largely a volunteer effort. The “Snipsisters” themselves are two Canadian women who own homes in Salchi Bay; Heidi Wagner is from Calgary and Shelagh O’Brien is from Toronto. They met at Salchi when they arranged to transport two abandoned street dogs to a no-kill Canadian shelter (see to read more about them—you can also make a donation on that site).   The Snipsisters raise funds across Canada to hire the vets; they solicit donations of medical supplies, animal food, towels, sheets, cages—everything necessary to conduct a sterilization clinic. They contact hosts in the clinic area to provide lodging for their Canadian volunteers and the 3- to 4-person vet team, they coordinate the local volunteers who handle all the non-surgical tasks of the clinic, and they arrange food to keep the whole thing going.

Municipal President Dario Pacheco Venegas visited so he could personally thank the key players in putting on the clinic; the municipality also sent two representatives from the Economic Development and Health Department, Jorge Anlehu Guillén and Vanessa Ariza Razo, to observe with the intent of improving future municipally sponsored clinics. However, Jorge and Vanessa turned into important members of the team—they translated, they explained, they brought in municipal trucks for pets with no way to get home, they sent out and brought back the laundry.

In addition to Heidi and Shelagh, there are—get this—folks from Calgary who think it’s a really fun idea to use their vacation to come down here and work, work, work in the clinic. RN Sheila Tomlinson has come from Calgary for all the Snipsisters clinics, Joanne Maigret is a retired nurse from Canada now living in France, and super-organized Lorna Nicholson came over from Salchi to help out.

The team from Pets for Life includes Paulina Stettner, a vet tech who serves as administrator, and veterinarians Anthony García Carillo, Policarpo (Poly) López Ruiz, and Jimena López. They were helped out by local veterinarian Norma Rivera Vivanco, who has also provided the TVT cancer therapy at no charge and the drugs for the chemotherapy at a sharply reduced rate.

Space for the four-day clinic was generously provided by Roberto Dattoli, owner of the Hotel Plaza Delphinus in Chahue, and his General Manager Blanca Güerra Martínez. Accommodations for the vet team were provided by Sam Castrillon and his wife Sherry McLeod de Castrillon at the Mision de los Arcos hotel; Wayne and Marcy Overby hosted the Snipsisters at Villa Sol y Mar in Conejos. Lunches were brought in by Heidi’s husband, Gary Campbell; Jane Bauer (in the Frida’s Fish Tacos truck); Wayne and Marcy Overby from Los Portales in La Crucecita and Las Palapas at the airport; and Sam Castrillon from Terra Cotta (pizza!).

Volunteers came from all over Huatulco and even farther away. These people registered and tracked animals, they assisted in pre-op and recovery, they washed surgical instruments, they pulled cages and babysat tranquilized animals, they cleaned up after animals, and much more:

Tintin Kodandaram, Mick and Maggie Winter, Lynn Holdridge and Dennis Klein, Liz St. Germaine, Nancy Norris, Tania Montejo, Sandy Wilson, Bryn and Jocelyn Wendelborg, Brenda Medina Priego, Kris Broderick, Judy Fox, Jesus Flores and his daughter Kenya, Fran McClaren and her son Trevor White, and John and Deborah Van Hoewyk.

According to Snipsisters’ Heidi Wagner, the increased collaboration makes for a “stronger and more effective effort,” and Snipsisters hopes that next year there will be an even bigger joint effort among TerreXtra, the municipio, and Snipsisters, and that all the coastal clinics will be able to use the Pets for Life team.

Given that one unspayed female dog, and her unsprayed offspring, can produce 69,000 additional dogs within six years, and one unsprayed female cat and her offspring can produce 420,000 kittens in seven years, the results of this year’s clinics—and those to come—will mean millions fewer unwanted animals on the Oaxacan Riviera.

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