The Current

How 'the dog lady of Mexico' helps find homes for the country's massive stray dog population

Alison Sawyer Current is the founder of Isla Animals in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. For 20 years, she's been saving wild and street dogs in that Mexican town.

Alison Sawyer Current operates an animal rescue clinic out of Isla Mujeres

A stray dog sits on a sidewalk while looking at a woman walking past in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Jan. 16, 2013. Mexico is home to the largest population of stray dogs in Latin America, with estimates ranging between 15 and 18 million dogs living on the streets. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

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Alison Sawyer Current has gone to great lengths over the years to help save the hordes of stray dogs on Mexico's Isla Mujeres.

"[The authorities] would round up dogs and put them down, sometimes electrocute them," she recalled. "I used to follow the truck, and when they got out of the truck, I'd let all the dogs out. One time I let all the air out of their tires so they couldn't get around."

Originally from Toronto, Sawyer Current has been saving wild and street dogs in Isla Mujeres for 20 years. She's the founder of Isla Animals rescue group, a team dedicated to helping the island's dog population through veterinary services, spay and neuter campaigns, and finding prospective owners all over North America who are looking to adopt pups.

She's also written a fictionalized version of her story, titled The Dog Lady of Mexico: A Heartwarming Journey Into Animal Rescue.

"They don't do it anymore. They don't even put dogs down on the island because we take them. If there's any dogs that need our need help, we take them in," she told The Current's guest host Catherine Cullen.

Alison Sawyer Current founded the Isla Animals rescue group in the early 2000s. (Isla Animals)

Mexico is home to the largest population of stray dogs in Latin America, with estimates ranging between 15 and 18 million dogs living without — or abandoned by — human owners.

"The locals had absolutely no access to anything like tick-and-flea medicines, spay-and-neuter — nothing like that. And there were puppies coming out of the bushes everywhere," she recalled.

"People would have litters of puppies and then they put them in a box and put them in an empty lot. And we'd find, one by one, the whole litter would show up and there were just dogs and puppies everywhere."

She started taking animals in out of sympathy. "At one point I had 65 animals in my house," she said. Eventually she founded Isla Animals animal rescue , and other volunteers joined her mission to help the animals.

Isla Animals' main outreach, Sawyer Current explained, is through spaying and neutering the dogs they rescue to prevent widespread breeding.

Stray dogs stand in an enclosure at the dog pound in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico, on Feb. 5, 2013. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

"We do one big spay-and-neuter clinic a year. Last year we did 1,740 animals in a week. It's an amazing operation. We have vets come from all over the world and people come down to volunteer and work with us," she said.

Much of their adoption outreach comes from tourists visiting the area who see the dogs and want to bring one home. But she says business on that front has slowed down thanks to pandemic-related travel restrictions.

Adopting during the pandemic

The pandemic has complicated the adoption process as well. Toronto couple Sandra Gray and Brian Goodger fell in love with Taffy when they visited Isla Animals during a 2019 vacation.

"I thought it was really cool. The animals were running loose. People could come and visit the animals. You could take them for a walk. [They were] treated very well," recalled Gray.

After coming home, they browsed Isla Animals' website and found Taffy. "I think it was pretty much made up in her mind right then that we were getting the dog," said Goodger.

That was April of this year. By then, travel restrictions made it hard to either go back to Isla Mujeres to pick up Taffy.

Toronto couple Sandra Gray and Brian Goodger and Taffy, the dog they adopted from the Isla Animals rescue group based in Isla Mujeres, Mexico. (Submitted by Sandra Gray and Brian Goodger)

By late fall, things became more difficult, as it was frequently too hot in Mexico and too cold in Toronto to bring Taffy home.

"If it's above 85 F in Mexico, they won't fly them, and if it's below 2 C in Toronto, they won't fly them. So both ends were right at that temperature. It was pretty hairy, right down to the very last second," Gray explained.

Things managed to work out in the end. When the conditions were just right, Goodger flew down himself to pick up Taffy.

"She's exactly what we were looking for. Great, great girl," said Gray.

Taffy has been acclimating herself well to the cooler Canadian climate, said Goodger.

"Sandy was at work the first morning, when we really got some snow. And [Taffy] just went right out, like full blast, just loved it, just pranced," he said.

"I ended up cleaning off the deck, pushing all the snow to the end where we have a small step walkway. And she would just be in there, like digging in there, sticking her nose in there. Just loved it."

Sawyer Current, 67, says she's beginning to think about handing the reins of Isla Animal Rescue to another team member. But she isn't planning on retiring just yet. More than 20 years after she started, the work remains personally fulfilling for her.

"Some of the dogs we get are like nothing I've ever seen. They are skin and bones. Their skin is a mess. They're covered with ticks and fleas," she said.

"But my favourite thing on the planet is to turn one of those dogs into a healthy, happy dog. And we've done it over and over again. And it's like nothing you can imagine. It's fabulous."

Written by Jonathan Ore. Produced by Howard Goldenthal.

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