PITTSFIELD -- Dogs in southern coastal Mexico have it pretty good: A warm climate, plenty of rain water, lots of other dogs and really nice beaches to run wild on.
If you’re a sea turtle egg or a hatchling leaving the nest and crossing the beach for the ocean, life is good, too -- as long as you don’t become lunch before your maiden voyage. As fate would have it, baby sea turtles make tasty meals for dogs. At one point, the sea turtle population was threatened because so many dogs dined on them.
So 12 years ago, Richard Rodger, a Massachusetts veterinarian familiar with the southern Mexico Pacific coastal region, worked with other New England veterinarians to launch the Mazunte Turtle Project.
Dr. John Reynolds, a veterinarian at the Pittsfield Veterinary Hospital, recently returned from the latest annual excursion to the Mazunte area. That’s where he and about a dozen other vets and technicians visited 15 villages to spay and neuter 304 dogs, an effort to stabilize the burgeoning dog population and the shrinking turtle population at the same time.
The vets and technicians have to pay their own way to a remote, rural community of Mazunte in the southern most tip of the country, in the Mexican state of Oaxaca. They arrived Jan. 3 and left Jan. 14.
In Mexico, Reynolds observed, few dogs are allowed in people’s homes. Dogs and their owners are more like friends who share lunch every now and then. The dogs roam free, coming home for a meal and to check in with the humans on most days.
"It’s a very different mentality regarding dog ownership," Reynolds said.
Naturally, these dogs tend to gather in groups of friends, and when the time is right they roam down to the beach for some fresh baby turtle. At the turn of the century, Reynolds said, it was not unusual to see packs of 30 or more dogs heading down the beach to scare up and scarf down baby turtles.
Since then, many in the small communities around Mazunte have taken up the cause of protecting the turtles, Reynolds said, by getting their dogs "fixed" and by collecting disposable containers that often might end up on the beach or in the ocean, where they can cause damage or death when swallowed by a turtle.
Mazunte is also the home of Centro Mexicana del Tortuga, the National Mexican Turtle Center, a museum and research center focused on the sea turtle.
The vets experienced plenty of support from the local folks. And even when they were not working, they were approached by people whose dogs were suffering some ailment. The vets would stop what they were doing and help out when they could, Reynolds said.
For the spay/neuter clinics, they would set up whatever surgical tables they could with the materials at hand. One was made with brick legs and a section of corrugated metal roofing for the table top. For shelter they would work outdoors under the overhang of a building’s entryway, for example.
The dogs are largely unaccustomed to being extensively handled by humans. So they had to be muzzled and sedated right away.
"They’re not used to being touched -- they’re very fearful of being touched and have not been socialized," Reynolds said.
The owners typically stood nearby watching the entire procedure, chatting with their friends and neighbors. When school let out, kids would swarm the open air surgical tables, watching the Americano vets performing surgery.
Lots of antibiotics were administered -- it was not the most sterile of operating facilities. The vets and techs had to shoo flies away from the open wounds during surgery, Reynolds noted.
All the dogs were also treated for intestinal parasites, ticks, and any others ailments they might have had.
"We were not worried about these dogs," Reynolds recalled. "You know these dogs are going to be fine because they’re just so tough."
By spaying or neutering 304 dogs, more than 2,000 offspring have been avoided for this year alone. So annual visits like this can make a significant impact on the rural canine population, Reynolds said.
The service was so popular this year, that by the end of the 10-day trip, the vets had to turn folks away because they had used all their supplies.
This was Reynolds’ first trip for the Mazunte Turtle Project, but it won’t be his last.
"We were helping people, helping turtles and helping dogs," Reynolds said. "We were having fun, doing what we love, eating great food and hanging around a beautiful beach. What could be better? I can’t wait to go again next year."
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