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Part 1: Dog Crossing

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Dog Crossing Part 1: We spend a day with a hardcore dog rescuer in Rosarito. Only here will you find a community of animal lovers who’ve dedicated their lives to saving dogs in Rosarito and Tijuana by finding them homes in San Diego. This is the first in a two-part series.

Show transcript

Relaxing beachy music

Retired Americans are everywhere along the beaches of Tijuana and Rosarito.

Quick clip 1 from baja video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6actY_E4gPE
Or maybe seagulls and beach sound???

Life can be good and easy. Real estate and cost of living are cheaper in Mexico, so it means lots of retirees can just relax and spend the rest of their days loungin in the sand.

But for people like Dana Dallabetta, a no-nonsense New Yorker with a big heart, there’s no time to relax.

Record scratch. Beach music stops. Intense music starts.

*******At Old Ladies House Clip 2 (14:25 - 15:07)
Dana: …. there's diagnosis of parvo and distemper we lost I think 18. Puppies and dogs to distemper last year that we were caring for some what we brought it into the house and it's like wildfire.you do everything, but it will still spread.

In Mexico, street dogs are everywhere, too.

Clip: Barking dogs ambi

And like a lot of other American retirees in Mexico, Dana spotted a stray on the beach one day and the dog stole her heart. She took him home. Named him Ricky Gervais. And Ricky became one of her best buds.

Then she saw another stray dog, and took it home. Then another. And Another. And another.

The next thing she knew, she was joining the ranks of hardcore animal rescuers in Tijuana and Rosarito who’ve dedicated their lives to saving animals.

Dana’s life now is the opposite of relaxing and chill. Any thoughts of retirement are gone. The small home near the beach she shares with her sister is now a makeshift dog shelter. Chaos, poop, pee, fur, barking, whimpering and vet trips now consume most of her days.

**********Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 3 (46:27 48:16)
some days I think I just can't do this anymore. I'm, I'm not going to do this anymore. It's too hard. And then I just see one and I'm like, but who's going to help him? You know, I don't know. Believe me, we talk about it. Animal rescue people like, are we insane?

I’m Alan Lilienthal, and you’re listening to Only Here, a KPBS podcast about the place where San Diego and Tijuana meet.

This week, producer Kinsee Morlan and sound designer Emily Jankowski bring you the first in a two-part series. In this episode, they spend a day with a dog rescuer in Rosarito.

Only Here will you find a community of animal lovers who’ve dedicated their lives to saving dogs in Rosarito and Tijuana by finding them homes in San Diego.

More after the break.

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KPBS’ Emily Jankowski and Kinsee Morlan met up with Dana Dallabetta in the huge parking lot of CostCo in Tijuana. And yes, the Costco in Tijuana is almost exactly like the Costcos in the U.S., only with a bit more Mexican food.

The Only Here crew spent the day shadowing Dana as she worked to save dogs from the streets of Mexico.

Meeting Tragic In Parking Lot Clip 4 (00:19 - :44)
Dana: so jump in. We're going to have a kind of a normal day with me, which is going to be a little hectic.

Dana’s car smells like dog. She immediately starts apologizing for the scent when Emily and I get in.

Meeting Tragic In Parking Lot Clip 5 (01:11 - 1:37)
When we cross, I'm sorry. I just throw everything out of the way we cross. A lot of times I do century where I shouldn't admit this on air, but I put the dogs free so that I can sound more convincing that they're mine. But of course they shit all over the place or vomit. It's a nice smell. Dogs. [laughter]

Dogs are Dana’s life now. It’s not the life she pictured when she first moved to the beach in Rosarito to retire. But it’s the life she’s ended up with. And she doesn’t see things changing anytime soon.

Music bump

It’s hell on earth for animals left to fend for themselves on the streets of Mexico. They’re starving and a lot of them are suffering from mange, parvo, distemper or some other disease.

In Tijuana and Rosarito, you can pretty much count on seeing at least a few stray dogs and cats almost every time you step outside.

The push to get all animals fixed as soon as they’re old enough is gaining steam in Mexico, but for years it just wasn’t happening at a large scale like it does in the U.S.

And so -- street dogs and cats begot more street dogs and cats, which begat more street dogs and cats.

There are big gaps in the animal services provided by the city governments in Rosarito and Tijuana. The cities just can’t keep up with the problem.

Lots of animals, very little city services -- that combination has left hundreds, maybe thousands of dogs and cats without homes.

A handful of American and Mexican rescuers have stepped up to help.

And I get it. When I lived in Tijuana, I once felt so sorry for a street dog that I tried to put it in my car and take it home. I mean, have you ever seen a dog literally starving to death. It’s heartbreaking. And it’s hard to look away and do nothing.

I mean, just listen to these tiny little street puppies coughing:

At Pet Food Store Clip 5_5 (10:04 - 10:15)
Dana: are you okay baby? I ain't got a cold.

This community of rescuers find the animals, fix them up then cross them through the border where they’re more likely to find forever homes. Technically, if the rescuers are following all the rules about crossing animals for commercial purposes, they have a few documents related to the dogs’ health and they’re supposed to cross through the cargo, not the passenger port of entry. Buut, a lot of these DIYers just drive a few animals at a time through the car lanes and most border patrol agents don’t seem to mind.

The adoption fees the rescuers charge cover some of the costs, but high vet bills mean most of the DIY operations like Dana’s are barely above water. They all rely on a fleet of animal-loving volunteers and donors to help kee p things going.

Baja Animal Sanctuary in Rosarito is one of the longest running and biggest animal shelters in the region. It shelters hundreds of animals at all times. But sometimes even that shelter hits capacity. An d then there’s nowhere for these dogs to go.

That’s where the smaller operations like Dana and her Tragic to Magic rescue come in.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 6 (00:10 - 28)
Dana: when I first moved here, which is a whole nother drama, um, and got my first dog off the beach, you know, covered in ticks and fleas and got him well. And then the second I didn't no intention of keeping all these dogs. So I called them and they just said we're at capacity. So that's the problem.

These capacity problems happen to shelters in the U.S., too, of course, but it’s nowhere near the scale of the problem in Mexico.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 7 (01:19 - 1:25)
Nat sound car navigation : In 600 meters sharp. Tight. It's going to make sure I get on the scenic road.

Dana is navigating her way through the streets of downtown Tijuana. She’s taking us to her home in Rosarito where she keeps some of the dogs she rescues.

She’s also got a set of puppies at her house who she suspects might have parvo - a serious, often deadly viral illness that mostly hits young puppies and causes symptoms like vomiting and bloody diarrhea. So we’re going to pick up the pups then head to her vet.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 8 (01:45)
Car navigation: turn right. Turn left. Okay.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 9 (10:05 - 10:55)
Kinsee: So I have….oh wait, there's a dog right there. I was going to say I haven't seen a street dog yet, but there's one.Dana: trust me we will see plenty of St. I always felt like the street dogs just had a different look in their eyes than other dogs. Kinsee: You know like they looked like they had that street smart sorta independence. Dana: Right. Well it's funny cause even where I live in Roseville read and where we're going to pick up the two puppies, there's plenty in dogs on the streets. But you know you have to sort of gauge are they being fed. Cause a lot of them have the owners or people that are feeding them, they have collars. Right. And you don't want to steal someone's dog. Exactly. And you see posters all the time where people will say they're missing their dog. But so you don't want to steal somebody's dog but you also don't want to leave them behind.

It strikes me that Dana kind of mirrors the personality of a stereotypical street dog. She’s got the same independent streak, self-determination and self-efficacy you find in a lot of these brazened dogs -- basically, she’s fierce.

A year and a half ago, Dana made her dog rescuing operation official. A lawyer friend of hers helped her get nonprofit status in the United States for Tragic to Magic, so she’s legit now.

But her first few years of dog rescuing were more piecemeal and guerilla-style. She says she just figured things out as she went and did what she had to do to find the dogs homes.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 10 (11:27 - 11:47)
Dana: …. When I first started, I would just load them in the car and try to sit on a street corner or go in front of a pet store and they're like, no, no, no, no. You got to have the five o one, you got to have insurance. So I had to get all that stuff.

Now that Dana’s got nonprofit status, things are a bit more official. Almost every weekend, she sets up adoption events in front of pet stores and shelters across San Diego County.

Her nonprofit is 100 percent dependent on the border for its survival. The work she does south of the border is fully funded by people north of the border.

And yes -- she’s fully aware of the fact that there are plenty of dogs in San Diego in need of homes.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 11 (06:23 - 6:33)
***Dana: We're sort of exporting and the problems in San Diego, which has its own set of problems. You know, there's a lot of dogs in the shelters in San Diego, so we're probably not helping.

Dana recently started taking some of the dogs she finds in Rosarito to a rescue outfit in Seattle. She says people there seem willing to adopt just about any dog -- even the older pits that can be harder to find homes in San Diego.

She says crossing the dogs into the U.S. is just something she has to do. Not many people in Rosarito or Tijuana will pay the adoptions fees that people in the U.S. pay. And the adoption fees are a big part of what keeps her rescue operation funded. The biggest costs come from vet care, food and shelter for the dozens of dogs currently in her care.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 12 (31:30 - 32:20)
Dana: well I used my whatever personal money I have, which isn't much. Um, I do adoption fees are pretty high. Puppies are $350, so if I get a lot of adoptions I do pretty well. I pay fosters though for some of the pups up there at the foster they get paid. Um, I do go fund me is, and I get donations and I'm trying to get the time to write some grants. So that has not been something I've really pursued. But I need to do it. But I just did a go fund me for the Parvo pups that costs $1,200. And I asked Facebook friends to contribute $10 cause I have so many of them. I, but I raised about a thousand dollars. So there's a street dog. Oh yeah. That's how, this is a pretty close to my house. They're everywhere,

Music bump

Dana never planned on becoming a dog rescuer. She actually ended up in Mexico by accident. She says a family member convinced her to go in on some property in Rosarito, but that it was ultimately a scam. She lost a bunch of money and sort of got stuck here.

(beach sounds)
And then she saw that cute dog on the beach….
Dog barking

Dana says the hardest part of her job is keeping the dogs she finds healthy and alive. Because parvo, mange and other diseases most people in the U.S. don’t hear or worry about, well, they’re rampant here in Mexico. And they’re suuuuper contagious.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 13 (13:46 - 15:33)
Dana: We just had a litter that we found. Well, you'll see where we are going to go. We found, uh, we were actually asked by the family, the Momma Dog, who I now have had 12 babies. She was chained up, the babies were nursing and they wanted us to take the babies. So I said, well they're nursing that we have to take the mom. And they said, okay. So we took them, I had them maybe a week and then the puppies started showing symptoms of being very sick. So sure enough they had Parvo, which is really, it's just awful. So all 12 of them. Another friend of mine, Maria Franco, who's done rescue here forever, she's actually met Cesar Milan. She told me try this vet in Tijuana. She's a really good at getting them to survive. So we went there, five survived. They just got out there in my house, five of 12. But then the, now we're in a kind of a panic because we brought car, I can turn this off. We brought Parvo puppies to the ranch. Even they are separate. It's so contagious. Like you can get it on your shoes or the workers. We have a couple of kids there that do the work for us. They maybe didn't wash their hands, so a couple more fell sick. So we'd been in a real panic. And then last night when they said two of these babies, so that's another mom that I have with two babies. She had mucus in her eye and I was like, Oh God. So I went and got him last night thinking I would rush him to the vet before seven that was closed. But this morning it looked like just one eye. So I think it's just an infection and they've already had two sets of shots, so they should, shouldn't be getting sick, but they can. So we're, that's what we're going to go get, take to the vet right away.

Clip 14 Natsound: dogs barking at Dana’s house in Rosarito

Dana lives in Rosarito with her sister. Their home is small and packed with dogs. Dana says a lot of these are the hard-to-adopt dogs that will likely never find a home.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 15 (38:19 - 38:37)
Dana: That's Shadow. We saw him being thrown out of a car on the highway and too little. I also had really bad hip dysplasia. He had surgery and I had him adoptive videos return cause he doesn't like men.

Dana grabs the crate filled with the “parvo pups,” as she calls them, then we switch from her small, beaten up car to a big truck. We’re headed to the vet first, then a foster home in the hills of a small town nearby called Primo Tapia, and Dana says we’re gonna need the four-wheel drive.

Clip 17 39:36: Dogs barking, saying goodbye to all the dogs at the house. IKEA gets out of the house and runs off.

Music bump

Aside from, you know, keeping a bunch of animals alive, there are a whole lot of little things that go into running an effective rescue and adoption nonprofit on your own. And many of those little things require the time and generosity of others.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 18 (19:28 - 20:02)
Dana: George. Can I stop by right now and pick up the disk with Oh, that's okay. It's no rush. I'll stop by later. Um, I'm, I'm, I have to get to the vet. Okay. Thank you though. So George is a friend of mine who lives in San Antonio and he's really good at graphics and he's making me a poster for adoption events. Nice. So I was going to stop. I get it and get it printed, but we'll do it later.

Dana is constantly on the hunt for donations -- food and things like newspaper for the puppies to pee and poop on. Before we get to the vet, she makes a quick stop.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 19 (51:29 - 51:47)
Dana: I'm going to run in here and just get some newspaper. Uh, there's a guy in town, all he does, I don't know where he gets it. He gets stacks of these newspapers and gives him to all the animal people and they always have some, so for instead of pee pads so I'll be right back. So yeah, a lot of people do a lot of different things.

The “animal people” she’s talking about, by the way, are a loose network of folks -- mostly women -- who, like her, saw the animal situation in Mexico and just couldn’t help but help.

These dog-loving ladies could just be chillin’ with the rest of the retirees in and around Rosarito.

But nope.

Going To Vet Clip 20 (00:55 - 2:15)
Dana: Yeah, just play cards all day. And I kind of have thought about that, but it's kind of not me to just do nothing. No, I mean it is fun to place the car play the cards that I do go occasionally and Wednesday is happy hour with the ladies, which of course there's hardly any men. The men all die off. It's all ladies and know. They're fun, they're really great and a lot of them will volunteer to transport or they'll donate money or they'll do, they do fundraisers, they like to do it in little fundraisers for different causes. There's a lot of people doing a lot down here, you know, um, friends of the library for the children, hearts of Baja, the for the orphanages. So a lot of them do get involved in different,

We get to the vet’s. It’s a nice, clean little place on the main street of downtown Rosarito. Dana sees the doctor and gets right to it.

Going To Vet Clip 21 (06:12 - 7:11)
Dana: So yeah, so you know, we had parvo at the ranch. And these are the Colorado guys and they had the two shots, but the little one has the mucus in the eye. They saw blood in the stool, but this morning the stools look great and they're eating
Vet: okay. Since when?
Dana: Uh, well they were at the ranch and then they came to my house last night.
Vet: Okay. And they're in a clean area, right?
Dana: They're supposed to be separate from all the other part about pubs, but they weren't that far away from the Wednesday.
Vet: What? They got separate planes?
Dana Yes, yes. But the kids, you know, I think wash your hands. Okay. So this one seems perfectly fine, but you have this I, this might be just an eye infection.

The vet doesn’t think the puppies have parvo. He takes their temperature, but doesn’t want to test them for parvo right now because they just had their vaccinations, which could result in a false positive.

Going To Vet Clip 22 (10:21 - 10:44)
Vet: OK, so they are healthy. No fever. no fever. Dana: Oh good. they're due on the 14th okay.

This time, it’s good news. At least for now.

Dana puts the puppies back in the carrier and we all load back into the truck.

Music bump

Because Dana has experienced so many diagnoses like parvo or distemper, she’s become a bit numb to those moments when the vet delivers the really bad news.

Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 23 (48:27 - 48:43)
Dana: You know, and I hate to admit it, but it was the first time a couple of times it happened, I was devastated and now I'm a little more used to it. So you just kind of expected a little bit, but yeah, it's terrible. It's just terrible.

Dana’s intense love for animals started growing years ago, back when she was living in New York.

She got cancer and her friends bought her two kittens to keep her company. She says something inside of her changed from the moment the cats came into her life.

**********Got First Dog Off Beach Clip 24 (46:27 48:16)
…….. it was like a chamber of my heart rope opened up and I, and then I became like a fanatic with animals. I was constantly doing things online. And then I would go to my first anti-fur demo and then somebody invited me to a film called the, the witness. Um, and I learned more and more about animal testing and factory farming. I became Vegan, so did the whole thing. And uh, and I really, really, I just feel sorry for them. You know, they're like innocent. And so I know sometimes I see him, I just like, Oh God. And then some days I think I just can't do this anymore. I'm, I'm not going to do this anymore. It's too hard. And then I just see one and I'm like, but who's going to help him? You know, I don't know. Believe me, we talk about it. Animal rescue people like, are we insane? Cause it's really a hard life. I mean, it's never enough money, never enough time, a lot of stress. But then you do get those pictures of that dog that you got adopted. Um, you know, somebody loves it and it's living a great life and it's like, you know, that's what makes it worth it.

That’s all we have time for this week.

In part two coming out in two weeks, we’ll meet more women like Dana who’ve dedicated their lives to saving animals. Plus, we follow the dogs across the border from mexico to San Diego where they meet their new owners at an adoption event.

Only Here is a KPBS podcast hosted by me Alan Lilienthal. It was written and produced by Kinsee Morlan. Emily Jankowski is the director of sound design. Lisa Morrissette is operations manager and John Decker is the director of programming. If you liked this episode, if it moved you in any way, please consider supporting the show by becoming a KPBS member online at kpbs dot org.

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Only Here

"Only Here" is a KPBS podcast about art, culture and life at the Western Hemisphere's busiest border crossing. Host Alan Lilienthal and producer Kinsee Morlan tell stories that could only come from a border town.