“Where there is charity and wisdom, there is neither fear nor ignorance.” — Francis of Assisi, patron saint of animals
I’m always inspired and amazed by the “charity and wisdom” of people on behalf of animals, particularly here in Mexico where most have so little regard for them, perpetuating a heartbreaking cycle of neglect and abuse, pain and suffering. Without these modern-day saints, it makes for a pretty grim backdrop on paradise. This was going to be a post about one such saint, and one such suffering animal. But it turned into so much more, for better and worse.
We had been back in the seaside village of Barra de Potosi for a few weeks when we spotted a malnourished puppy and his equally starving amigo as we were biking back from our favourite “shrimp shack” up the road. Both dogs’ ribs strained against tight, dull coats. I had taken some leftover tortillas and seafood from dinner, which has become habit, on the chance I’ll see an animal that could use just a little more sustenance, and offered it to the dogs. The little guy grabbed the tortilla from my hand and wolfed it, barely chewing. Then he looked up at me for more, his bottom lip trembling with anticipation. It felt like a knife through the heart.
That quivering lip haunted me the rest of the night. Then it angered me. These two dogs were on somebody’s property; they belonged to somebody. And they were starving. I understand that many people barely have enough to feed themselves, but there is help, if they cared enough to ask for it. The next day we bought some kibble and biked back up the road, but the pups were gone. So we gave some of the food to a friendly dog who ambled up to us to see what was going on. She was thin but had a glossy black coat that suggested she was being cared for, at least minimally. We returned later the next day, right around sunset, and this time the dogs, including the little lip-trembling Squirt, bounded out from behind their fence. Hot on their heels was the happy black opportunist from farther up the road, whom we dubbed Alegre (Spanish for happy). As they all gobbled the food, we noticed a figure in the dim doorway of the property’s house, staring at us. Since our Spanish is limited at best, I simply asked, “Esta bien?” hoping that would translate to “Is this OK?” The man said nothing, his expression didn’t change, and it was not amused. So we hopped on our bikes and rode away.
But we kept going back, every night at sunset, and every night the dogs were waiting. We began making healthy, homemade dog biscuits to make it easier to toss and run so the dogs wouldn’t follow us (and to avoid the glares). We were well aware of the possibility they would become dependent on us, and that we would not be here forever. We needed backup. We had heard there was a couple who had recently bought a B&B in the village, famed fashion designer Betsey Johnson’s former Betseyville, and who had begun taking in stray, sick and abandoned animals along with paying guests. What a great idea, we thought. Stasya and Mike shelter the dogs and cats at their Hacienda La Rusa, nurse them back to health and, with a little luck, some of them go home with the guests at the end of their stay. We got in touch with Stasya (Mike was out of town) and learned she also has a food program where she tools around town and outlying areas on her quad, often with some local kids in tow, and feeds hungry cats and dogs, like the ones we had discovered.
She also started a rudimentary spay and neuter program, where she gathers up dogs and cats and takes them to the local shelter, Society For the Protection of Animals Zihuatanejo (SPAZ). As a result, the population of unwanted dogs and cats in Barra has dropped considerably. And awareness among the locals is on the rise. She tells on her site of a group of fishermen who, upon returning from sea at dawn, heard mewling. A litter of kittens had been dumped in the lagoon. Rather than leave them to die, the fishermen gathered the kittens up and took them to Stasya. Only one survived. Little Frida hobbled around on a splint and battled diarrhea for a week, but she seems to be on the mend. A week later, someone dropped a couple of puppies at her doorstep. The following morning, just before we visited, she found eight more on her stoop (two would ultimately not make it through the night). Now, in addition to her own, she had 17 cats and dogs, some sickly, sharing her home. It was off-season so there were no guests to adopt them. Plus, the B&B was undergoing renovations and space was tight. It was an overwhelming situation, but Stasya, battling a virus herself, soldiered on.
One day we went with her on a feeding. The scraggly, bony-hipped cats and dogs that crawled out from under bushes and behind trees doubled, tripled, quadrupled. Another day we helped take a quartet of dogs to SPAZ in Zihuatanejo for spaying and neutering, which Stasya undertakes at her own expense ($500-$600 a month) when donations run out from the few fundraisers the town stages each year. The building’s three crumbling stories of cages housed over 50 kittens, puppies, dogs and cats, many lying in feces- and urine-soaked newspaper, the need overwhelming the resources. It was an overcrowded refugee camp of quivering lips. Fifty pairs of eyes, pleading eyes, followed our every move. Just about every animal got to its feet, pressed against the bars of the cages, and locked eyes with us. If I was pierced by one quivering lip, I was gutted by these eyes. For photographer Rick it was worse; he had to zoom in on them.
Stasya is only one saint embodying Francis’ sentiment of charity and wisdom, but she can’t continue alone; fear and ignorance are formidable foes. Over the winter, when there are more North Americans (and more saints) in town, there’s more help. But in the summer, with so few people to rely on, the need rises with the heat. One solution to either replace or augment her work is an organized spay and neuter clinic, and she’s finally managed to get a group, Baja Spay and Neuter Foundation from Rosarito, Baja California, to come to town this October to do just that. Meantime, if you can spare one hour, one day, one dollar or one bag of food (or, the greatest gift, adoption), please donate it to her cause, Amigos de Animales, or to SPAZ. You’re guaranteed to quell at least one quivering lip.