The most unexpected, unforgettable part of our family beach vacation to Holbox, Mexico, was meeting the pups in need at an animal rescue - freetxp

The most unexpected, unforgettable part of our family beach vacation to Holbox, Mexico, was meeting the pups in need at an animal rescue

The first time I laid eyes on KichPam, a dirty-blond mutt at the Refugio Animal Holbox on the tiny island just off the north coast of Mexico’s Yucatan Peninsula, I was drawn to her perky, pointy face, floppy ears and dark, expressive eyes . It was December and we were on our first family holiday abroad since the Before Times. She reminded me of our sweet Texan mutt, Daisy, back home in Toronto. But when KichPam looked back at me, my body froze as my brain tried to register what I was seeing.

She’d been severely injured. Both her back legs were paralyzed and one side of her face was partly missing, a raw red ring where one leaving eyelid should have been. Before I could process what she had suffered, my husband, Dmitri, started playing fetch with her, and she was running after the ball at full speed — her limp legs dragging behind her as she kicked up sand in the sunny courtyard.

Refugio Animal Holbox is the only shelter for Holbox and the surrounding 36 communities.

Carmina Puyou, the warm 29-year-old vet at the shelter, told me the pup’s name means “beautiful” (ki’ichpam) in Yucatec Mayan, and she had been brought to the shelter more than a year earlier, after a car accident where the driver didn’t even stop. Despite her injuries, she was full of life and confidence, the alpha dog of the shelter.

Even if you’re a devoted pet person like I am, visiting an animal rescue on vacation might sound like a strange thing to do, even in Mexico, which has the largest population of stray dogs in Latin America. According to the Mexican Chamber of Deputies, 70 per cent of the country’s estimated 23 million dogs live on the street.

But when my husband and I started noticing that sunset on Playa Holbox, the island’s main white-sand beach, drew throngs of tourists walking dogs on leashes — a rare sight anywhere — I had to know more. I missed my dog ​​and so did my two daughters, aged seven and five. I thought we could all get a “fur fix” while doing something useful on an otherwise lazy and languid holiday.

An aerial view of Holbox, an island north of Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula.

We discovered that the refuge was the only shelter for Holbox and the surrounding 36 communities in the municipality of Lázaro Cárdenas, according to the shelter. It’s dedicated to finding, caring for and rehabilitating animals in need, including dogs, cats, birds and crocodiles — many of them in desperate situations.

Morelia Montes, a Colombian 68-year-old swimwear company owner, founded the rescue in 2009 after taking in an abandoned newborn raccoon, whose mother had been scared off by the lights and noise of a motorcycle. Montes named the baby Venancio and he became a celebrity among locals and tourists, and the official mascot and face of her new refuge.

Puyou and Montes told me they do this work for the animals that have been given up on but have so much more to give. “Seeing these dogs transform with love makes everything worth it,” Puyou says.

Morelia Montes founded Refugio Animal Holbox after taking in an abandoned baby raccoon.

The shelter itself is a block away from the beach at the edge of the town centre, surrounded by overgrown bushes and swaying palm trees. The first time we walked there from our hotel, in the blazing midday heat, we could hear the dogs barking before we spotted Venancio’s face painted on a wooden sign with the words “todos somos uno.” We are all one. There were other tourists coming in and out of the double wooden gates of the entrance, picking dogs up, returning them and getting instructions from the local volunteers.

The cages lining the wall on one side of the courtyard were empty, except for a single cat. A couple dozen dogs were lounging around a play structure and colourful foam mats on a terracotta-tiled floor. The walls of the attached house, which double as an office, were all painted sunny yellow. The dogs were peaceful, content and mostly obedient.

For a family like mine, one that loves dogs and beaches, it didn’t get any better than sunset walks along the Gulf of Mexico with Arena, Floopy and Conojito and seeing this magnificent island through the pureness of dogs who need nothing more than food , shelter, love and the feeling of sand beneath their paws.

Edith on a beach walk with Arena.

It also gave my daughters a chance to embrace something that scared them. The first time we went to the shelter, they were cowering behind my husband, slightly stunned and disturbed by what they saw. They had expected to play with picture-perfect puppies like the ones they were used to seeing back home, and while there were a few of those, they had no choice but to face the ones that had clearly been injured, ill or abused and were still dealing with the trauma.

By our last visit, my eldest was lifting up KichPam and helping her adjust her callused hind legs into her wheelchair for a walk — and we continued to think about her back home. We wondered out loud when we would go back to the island to see her again.

I was ecstatic when a month later, scrolling Instagram, I saw an update from the shelter: she had been adopted by a family in Boston, and an American tourist visiting Holbox volunteered to accompany her as a travel buddy on three separate flights to bring her home. Seeing the video posted by her new family — of KichPam in a pink and gray sweater, running through a field covered in snow — filled me with joy.

Alice with KichPam, whose name means "beautiful." After this trip, the dog was adopted by a family in Boston.

“Tourists provide an opportunity for these animals to have a better life,” says Montes. “Sometimes I see a young couple spending all day at the shelter just hugging dogs and I think to myself, Why aren’t they at the beach or walking around the island? But it’s because they are changing lives.”

Since returning from Holbox, I’ve connected with a Calgary-based pilot, Eliza Kurdziel, who has been working closely with the shelter through her own newly founded rescue, Piña Perros. Since Kurdziel’s first trip in October, she has found Canadian homes for more than 20 of the Holbox dogs and plans to keep working with the shelter and flying there regularly too, so she can help transport even more.

The generosity of these volunteers and the fighting spirit of these dogs has inspired me to do the same. The next time we travel to Holbox, or somewhere else that relies on foreign adopters, we’ll be planning to fly one of these dogs back with us, to help it find its forever home.

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