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Dogs without borders: New Mexico group aids strays in Juárez

May 28, 2019

The harsh reality, Mary Tovey said, is that she can’t save every dog.

“We’re asked two, three times a day to help a dog in Juárez,” she said, “and people don’t understand — we’re not a shelter and we’re not a facility. If we spent the time tracking down one dog in need, we would find two dozen more.”

She was matter-of-fact as she sat in the bright kitchen of her Nob Hill home in Albuquerque, with light pooling across an orange wall and statues of the Virgin Mary. Dogs shuffled in and scampered about — most of them rescues from her nonprofit work.

Tovey is a recently retired teacher from Albuquerque Public Schools who partnered with Chihuahua animal welfare advocate Alma Morfin to create Planned Pethood de Juárez — a cross-border organization mainly focused on spaying and neutering efforts in the Mexican city and surrounding area. It works with informal networks of women in Ciudad Juárez, a city known for its violence, who are trying to find homes for dogs roaming the streets and eventually end the problem of stray dogs.

The stray dog population in Juárez has exploded in recent years, rising from an estimated 20,000 in 2010 to 200,000 in 2013, according to the latest data available from local officials.

But Planned Pethood’s work is about more than dogs. “It’s about fostering hope and compassion in an area that’s long overdue for some,” Tovey said.

A small part of the organization deals in direct rescue, a selective process that proves tricky when it comes to politics: Why bring dogs into the U.S. from Mexico, when there are so many strays in the states?

“For certain dogs, we have never had an abundance of them in [U.S.] shelters — never,” Tovey said.

These are primarily no-shedding and low-shedding dogs breeds, such as schnauzers, Shih Tzus, Maltese and poodles. People will go to great lengths to get such dogs, she said, including going to breeders. She primarily works to rescue these types of dogs — the ones sure to find homes quickly in the U.S.

The rescued dogs undergo a vetting process through Tovey’s partner organization, Lap Dog Rescue of New Mexico, as well as a quarantine process in which they are tested for heartworm and infectious illnesses. They are treated, if necessary, and then microchipped, photographed and offered for adoption on the Lap Dog Rescue website.

A new partnership with a Salt Lake City shelter and three foster organizations have expanded the rescue mission to include larger dogs, Tovey said.

Dedicated to a mission

Tovey has a long history with international animal rescue. She started her work 15 years ago in San Miguel de Allende with Save a Mexican Mutt. The program sent stray dogs from Mexico to fill demand for pets in the U.S.

Tovey, who helped transport the dogs, met Morfin around the same time.

“Alma [Morfin] single-handedly helped changed the culture of animal welfare in Chihuahua — she’s incredible,” Tovey said.

Both are deeply dedicated to the mission of ending the problem of homeless dogs across the border.

One Friday morning when Tovey was preparing to leave for El Paso to deliver pet medicine and supplies to Morfin’s clinic for distribution in Juárez, she learned her brother had died.

After deliberating, Tovey and her sister, Marty, made a tough decision — they chose to move forward with the four-hour drive in a battered red van.

“I have to do this,” Tovey said she thought at the time. “The clinic is relying on me.”

After dropping off the supplies in El Paso, they would pick up eight dogs from Juárez and had to get them to foster families in Albuquerque by 6 o’clock the next evening.

And Marty wanted to pick up a stray kitten a volunteer had found.

Morfin met them in El Paso to pick up the two pallets stacked chest-high with dog food, medication and other supplies.

There wasn’t ever a time Morfin didn’t love animals. It was just part of her family life.

“All the time, my mother, she was taking in strays,” Morfin said. “She never stopped. She’s got 15 cats, eight dogs and feeds all the birds in front of her house.”

Broad effort for change

In 2005, Morfin worked with animal control officials in Juárez and other animal welfare organizations to change the way stray dogs are euthanized, shifting to injection and ending a practice of electrocution.

“It wasn’t just euthanasia,” said Christi Camblor, executive director of the nonprofit Compassion Without Borders, which operates animal shelters in Mexico and California. Camblor joined Morfin in the effort to improve conditions for stray animals in Juárez.

“There were really troubling conditions at animal control,” Camblor said, “where animals weren’t fed or watered, and even dead animals weren’t removed from the population.”

The partnership expanded its effort, she said, and by 2008, the state of Chihuahua had adopted injection as its primary method of euthanizing dogs.

“As much as I’d like to say things have dramatically shifted, I still think there’s a long way to go,” Camblor said. “All throughout Mexico, there’s still diseased, malnourished and injured animals pretty much off the beaten track in every city. There’s still not enough access to free or low-cost spay and neuter or vaccinations.”

The most important animal welfare work is providing space for local advocates, she said, and providing them with resources “so they can come up with their own local solutions.”

Morfin is optimistic. She believes the treatment of dogs is changing in the area because “children are bringing a different mentality.”

Mary Cruz Nuñez and her husband of 40 years, Jesus Nuñez Ojeda, are among those in the city working to spread love and respect for dogs by reaching out to children. Nuñez Ojeda wrote a book, Yodi, that was inspired by a stray the couple adopted.

They offer the book to schools, Cruz Nuñez said, because children are receptive to its message and can teach their parents.

“The children are the ones telling their fathers, ‘Please don’t kick the dog — we learned in school to treat them with respect,’ or ‘Papa, when the dog is sick we should take them to the vet.’ It is the child speaking frankly,” Cruz Nuñez said.

They plan to write a second book about Juanito, a dog who lost a leg to an infection after a car accident.

Labor of love

It was 8:30 a.m., and Veronica Garcia Ortega hadn’t had breakfast yet — the motto in her small home in La Chaveña neighborhood of Juárez is that “the dogs eat first,” she said in Spanish as she prepared to feed 30 or so dogs in her courtyard.

Dog food clattered into a makeshift feeding station — a small, plastic wading pool — and Garcia Ortega, one of the independencias who work with Tovey and Morfin, tried to step back as dogs scrambled over each other, wolfing down the food. She filled up a second pool, and another huddle formed.

Garcia Ortega has given each dog a name. And she’s trying to give each one a home. Some of them are under consideration for adoption in Salt Lake City through Planned Pethood.

She and other independencias are laying the groundwork for change when it comes to animal welfare in their community.

“These women go against the European, the United States’ ideal that animal welfare is an upper-class concern,” said Ivan Sandoval Cervantes, a Juárez native who works as an assistant anthropology professor for the University of Nevada. Cervantes has been studying connections between violence against humans and animals, and the activism that has emerged in Juárez in recent years.

“They’re managing their own families and jobs,” he said of the independencias, “but have created these networks that someone can call and tell them, ‘These dogs are in bad shape,’ and they try to get someone to pick them up.”

For two years, Garcia Ortega has worked in the area, helped by her sister Lupita and other family members to track down dogs that are sick, injured or friendly and give them a place off the streets. Garcia Ortega said she wants to make her city not just associated with drugs or violence, but a place that cares.

“This is their labor of love to Juárez,” Tovey said about the independcias.

It’s complicated

Tovey took eight dogs across the border and had them back to Albuquerque before 6 p.m., playing harp music to keep them calm during the drive. The handing off of dogs to their foster families was a muddy affair as the dogs tore across her backyard, playing in what was left of the snow. After the hubub died down, and the last dog was packed away, Tovey went inside to take care of her own dogs.

She said despite all of the coordination, rescue is only a small part of the organization, and it’s Planned Pethood’s work to encourage sterilization and vaccination that results in better lives for dogs. The cost of sterilization is $20 for male dogs, $25 for females and $15 to give full vaccinations.

“Rescue is sort of a side job that feeds our souls,” she said.

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