When traveling abroad, the act of charitable volunteering is something many find enjoyable, a noble pursuit. Good people who spread love by lending a helping hand, wanting to give something back, give their time to a cause – in comparison to sitting in a bar or sunbathing all day.
Thinking of myself as a highly principled person, I was drawn to volunteering at a local animal shelter. In fact, I just wanted to spend time interacting with animals, particularly dogs. Not only for myself but to give some affection and respect back to those cruelly set aside by society.
The Street Dogs Of Mexico
Of an estimated 18 million dogs in Mexico, 12.6 million live on the streets, a whopping 70% in total, either born as strays or discarded by owners. As a result, Mexico has the highest number of street dogs in Latin America. Seventy percent of strays (8.8 million) will tragically die alone before their 2nd birthday.
Such is the scale of the problem, in Mexico City alone there are approximately 1.2 million street dogs, with an estimated 20,000 euthanized every month. These dogs face death by electrocution, as euthanasia drugs are unavailable.
Baptism Of Fur
I did not choose an easy route to my maiden voyage working with animals. I chose a government-run shelter in Puerto Vallarta, on the Pacific coast of Mexico. The dogs there were sweet, but life is not peachy for them, in any way, shape, or form.
Despite being the only no-kill, government-run shelter in Mexico, unlike privately run ‘hostels’ that get to pick and choose the dogs they take – mostly dependent on how adoptable they will eventually be – the municipal shelter takes the “unwanted of the unwanted.’’
The flotsam and jetsam of dogs, formerly living a grueling life on the streets, not so much man’s best friend, but more one-time companions, forsaken and cast asunder in an already saturated flood-plain of discarded hounds, they already had it tough.
Having to scavenge on throw-away scraps of rotting waste, their mere existence on earth was callous and unsympathetically brutal.
But the safety of an animal shelter is not the bed of roses our minds-eye tells us; life there is still hard.
Centro De Control Y Salud Animal (Center Of Control And Animal Health)
When a dog first arrives, they are put into quarantine in tiny, dark, cramped conditions in kennels as little as 3×3 square feet. They remain there until the vet is satisfied no disease is present, or a larger space becomes available – this can be several weeks.
One meal per day is served and a twenty-minute walk takes place whilst their accommodation is cleaned. Sometimes, they will receive a few minutes off-leash to run around in the park, if there’s time, and this is rotated throughout the week so all the dogs get a fair share.
Sadly, the rest of the day will be spent in a cage however, to compensate, volunteers will bathe, bring treats, and try to bond with the dogs so unused to any love and attention.
Vastly underfunded by local government, the acopio, as it’s known locally, employs a couple of veterinarians and 3 or 4 cleaning staff to meet the needs of the animals (cats also). Food and medical supplies are donated by generous philanthropy, and fundraising takes place throughout the year, to make sure the animal residents are hearty and well-fed.
The municipal shelter (Centro De Control Y Salud Animal) in Puerto Vallarta sits on the edge of the city, far from where tourists and visitors care to venture.
To get there I would take a local service bus which meandered through local neighborhoods. The journey took approximately 45 bumpy minutes, as it gnarled its way over potholed, cobbled roads and dusty, dirt tracks.
After alighting the bus, a short uphill walk would take me to the gates of the shelter where I’d be met by a baying mass of excitement from 50-plus dogs incarcerated within.
On my first day, I traveled with another volunteer who gave me a quick tour and guided me through the walking route. At this time the dogs only received twice-weekly walks on volunteer days (Wednesday/Saturday).
The other five days would see them peer longingly through bars and caged kennel doors to the outside world and beyond, dreaming of fantasy within the grasp of their paws but so far out of reach.
Godoy (meaning: Ruler, or King in old French)
I hoped that by forming a special bond, I could also give the dogs back a little self-pride.
One such dog (and my personal favorite) was Godoy.
Godoy, a pitbull/mastiff cross, was already one year into his penal servitude when I first arrived at the shelter as a “green behind the ears” volunteer. He was rescued by the police whilst tied to a tree; starved, beaten, and tortured by his previous ‘owners’. Local children used to bombard him with rocks and loose dogs would attack him whilst defenseless. He was within an inch of his life with the Reaper’s shadow hanging over him.
I was instructed not to let him close to other dogs due to aggression. He was part escapologist, part silent-assassin, and given the opportunity would attack any other dog, large or small. Like a caged tiger in cramped zoo conditions, he paced his kennel, menacingly fixing his gaze at other dogs. But he was fantastic with people! Stubborn to a fault, he would walk when he wanted, or sit down and refuse to move when he didn’t.
Like all dogs, he loved belly-rubs and whenever he had park-time would sit quietly by your side. We bonded quickly, and I always tried to be the volunteer that took him out for his walk. As time went on, and I became one of the full-time dog handlers, it became my mission to try and socialize him. I was determined to help find a fur-ever home for the “dog they couldn’t tame”.
Sadly, he would never find friendship with any other adult dog, but out of sheer luck we discovered his paternal side, and he showed great affiliation towards puppies and became a mentor and protectorate to several young dogs before their ultimate adoption.
Godoy spent five full years at the shelter, seeing many dogs come and go whilst he remained. Time was running out as he approached his mid to senior years but eventually, after several social media campaigns, he found a loving family willing to take a chance on him. He finally made it home after 1858 days behind a cage.
Charity Begins With A Dog In The Family
They say charity begins at home. With so many households owning pets and an estimated 63 million homes owning dogs in the United States, they really are part of the family.
Dogs have been a trusty sidekick to humans for over 10,000 years. They can perhaps, read and understand us better than we can in reverse, and of all mankind’s wondrous achievements, it is conceivable that domestic canines are our greatest gift to the world. But as we claw at the statistics, and look around us at their suffering, they may also be our greatest shame.
Charities, non-profit organizations, rescue groups, and individuals are constantly working full-time to alleviate the problem of homeless dogs. At the acopio, two charitable organizations work tirelessly to support the plight of the animals within.
- ‘Friends Of Puerto Vallarta Animals’ promote local fosters and adoptions, provide food, medication, three full-time dog walkers, and volunteers to walk, bathe and socialize dogs.
- ‘Dog For Life’ also provides medical support and arrange adoptions and transportation to Canada. Dog For Life has also funded the build of additional kennels and an off-leash area for the dogs to run and play.
Volunteering at an animal rescue center can have several wonderful and surprising benefits for both animals and humans alike. Most shelters cater for dogs, cats, or domestic pets but there can also be opportunities at zoos or wildlife sanctuaries.
There are many perquisites to devoting some precious time, and giving just two hours a week can make a real difference to both volunteers and the unfortunate animals that find themselves without a home.
Here are a few reasons in favor of volunteering.
1. Many household pets that end up in shelters are either abandoned or given up for adoption. Several of these may have come from abusive or unloving homes. Some [dogs] have been saved from or used in dog-fighting whilst others left tied up all day are merely used to serve a purpose like guarding a home or empty premises.
2. Spending time with these animals enhances their lives, increases their chance of being adopted, and helps them learn to trust and love again. Socialising can improve their mental health and will prevent them from going stir-crazy.
3. Dog walking and exercising. To stop that stir-craziness and disruptive element through boredom, exercise is an essential part of volunteering with dogs. Aside from the health benefits, many dogs at shelters have never been walked on a leash. This is an essential part of their rehabilitation and steps to future adoption. For humans too, physical activity releases endorphins and provides a feel-good factor.
4. Adoption. When planning to adopt a dog or cat, volunteering can help with the decision. Being able to see the daily care and attention they need and learning what it takes to meet those needs can be crucial when making that vital decision to adopt. Potential adopters also may find their soul-mate in one of those unfortunate cats or dogs that spend most of their day locked in a cage.
5. Make new friends (and not just furry ones). Volunteering is an excellent way to meet new friends and contacts with similar interests. Mucking-in at the shelter gives a sense of teamwork and community whilst carrying out activities such as walking, feeding, bathing, cleaning kennels, and bonding. It can also be a fabulous, cost-free day out with other family members and can help teach children the important value of animal welfare.
6. Many people record their lives on social media. Posting pictures and experiences can help create awareness, giving free publicity to the rescue center. This added exposure can lead to more volunteers and may see an increase in much-needed donations, going directly towards the upkeep of the shelter and its residents.
The Human Effect
It’s not just animals that benefit from volunteering. Human health and wellness are under stress like never before and freeing up a few hours each week can give an immune system a much-needed boost.
Studies have shown that volunteering provides us with a sense of accomplishment and pride, which in turn increases confidence and happiness. Working with animals has also been shown to improve mood and decrease anxiety and stress, leading to lower bouts of depression.
For older adults, keeping the body and mind active is especially important. Volunteering, particularly after retirement, can give extra impetus, zeal, and a new direction for those helping the plight of the less fortunate. This can all lead to a slowing or lessening of many symptoms or consequences of aging.
Barking Benefits Out Loud
As my time at the shelter drew to a close, I’d been there for almost four years – two years as a twice-weekly volunteer, and another two working full-time – walking, socializing, and helping in all aspects of rehabilitation. It was a grueling, roller coaster ride of psychological emotions and physical endurance, sometimes injury.
Having been around dogs throughout my entire work and home life, the daily encounters with rescue dogs led me to love animals even more. Their resilience and ability to forgive at the hands of cruelty is incredible; their love absolute, despite the unforgiving world in which they may be born.
So go ahead if you can, and seek out your local rescue center, and give yourself, the animals, and the local community, an admirable gift through volunteering.