A cause near and dear to i Love Dogs is Amazon CARES (Amazon Community Animal Rescue, Education and Safety), a non-profit animal welfare organization based in and around Peru’s Amazon River region. Amazon CARES operates the area’s first no-kill animal shelter and low-cost veterinary treatment center, and also provides free spaying and neutering, immunization and parasite control clinics in remote areas of the Amazon Rainforest.
Through its Vets Abroad program, Amazon CARES has sent a volunteer team of veterinarians to Peru this month to help animals in need. The team includes social media powerhouses Patrick Mahaney, Dr. V and Amanda Brown, who will all be documenting their journey via blogs, Twitter and Facebook.
i Love Dogs is proud to sponsor the Vets Abroad trip to Peru. Our sponsorship will help defray the cost of equipment, supplies and other essential items. To help improve the health of the dogs in Peru, we are sending samples of i Love Dogs premium vitamins and supplements. All of our supplements contain green tea and reishi, which provide the antioxidant and immune system support so vital to dogs in high-risk health situations.
In an exclusive interview, Amazon CARES Founder and Executive Director Molly Mednikow told i Love Dogs about the organization’s efforts to help animals.
You were inspired to create Amazon CARES when you visited the Peruvian Amazon for the first time and saw the dire situations in which domesticated animals were living. Can you tell us about that first experience?
My first trip to the Amazon took place in 1996 when I volunteered for a charity called Rivers of the World. We delivered school supplies to remote river communities. I cried in my hostel as tiny bugs swarmed the room. A few hours later, after touring some of Iquitos, I sat in the same room and felt lucky as if I were in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. During that trip I fell in love with the Amazon, a contrast to my fast-paced career as a fine jewelry store owner. I returned many times, organizing volunteer trips.
As an animal lover, the vast number of ill street dogs in Iquitos dismayed me. I began rescuing a few dogs with each trip. This involved finding a veterinarian, paying for treatment, and finding people willing to take them in after they healed. The seed was planted, yet I never dreamed I would eventually move to Peru and start a full-scale non-profit such as Amazon Community Animal Rescue, Education and Safety!
At that time, I attempted a rescue project called “Amazon Dog Rescue,” and I sent what I could afford to a veterinarian in Iquitos. This was a drop in the bucket, and did not succeed without more personal oversight.
When did you make the decision to form Amazon CARES?
In 2004, following a volunteer trip, I stayed in Iquitos several weeks to visit friends. Wherever I went, dogs “found” me. I snuck them in and out of my hotel, and I found a veterinarian to care for their needs.
While visiting one of my rescues, I was horrified that an older dog was in a small wooden box that confined his ability to move. The box was in a dark closet and no food or water was available. Before I could really consider the implications, I rented space for a small shelter and hired a veterinarian. I reached out and grabbed the peace that the Amazon region offered. These dogs and something in my heart compelled me to stay, and when the time came to fly home, I simply did not get on the plane. It was then, in 2004, that I founded Amazon CARES.
In 2005 I sold my business in the U.S., using those funds to fully realize this dream. This is why I often refer to Amazon Community Animal Rescue, Education and Safety (CARES) as the “accidental charity.” I did not plan to start a charity, but it was (and still is) my destiny.
Dogs continued to find me, as if I were the Pied Piper, and before I knew it I was renting space to house them. One very ill dog actually walked into a Chinese restaurant where I was eating lunch! This is rare, as restaurant owners – and people in general – treated street dogs, especially sick ones, like pariahs, and chased them away, often by throwing boiling water on them! I rescued this dog and named him WonTon.
Tell us about your shelter and veterinary clinic in Peru.
Amazon CARES is located in Iquitos, Peru, the capital of Peru’s Amazon Region. The Peruvian Amazon is one of the most inaccessible cities in the world. There is no road access to Iquitos, and the only other means of reaching the city is by boat. There are no direct flights to Iquitos from outside of Peru, so international travelers need to book travel through Lima.
The veterinary clinic is located in the city center of Iquitos, in a house that I purchased in 2005. The clinic area downstairs is 1,500 square feet, and features the most modern veterinary tools and equipment to be found in Iquitos. It includes an office, reception, surgical room and an exam area. Upstairs is an apartment available for volunteers when they literally “miss the boat” to the shelter! I stay there as well when I want to be “in-town,” but the disco next door makes a quiet night’s sleep nearly impossible.
In 2006, CARES purchased two acres of jungle property in Cabo Lopez, an undeveloped community on the Itaya River, which is a tributary of the Amazon River. We left one acre as undeveloped rainforest. Hopefully we can one day build a nature trail in this area. This jungle property is where my “house” is located. The same house contains space for volunteers. We have a multi-use building, called a “maloca.” This screened-in hut is 1,500 square feet, and we host many mobile clinics and humane education programs there.
Our no-kill animal shelter is also located on the property. It is split into three areas: one for healthy, adoptable dogs; one for non-contagious dogs under treatment; and a small dog/puppy corral and play area.
A generator provides several hours of electricity after dark. Being close to the Equator, sunset happens instantaneously, and in a moment it will be pitch black. That is why volunteers must board our boat in time to make the 30-45 minute ride to the shelter before dark.
In 2009, severe flooding destroyed the property’s structures. We have been able to rebuild in large part to grants from the Brigitte Bardot Foundation of France and CGI Technology and Information Services, Inc., of Canada.
Last year we undertook our largest capital improvement project, and built a large building to house volunteers, including outdoor showers and bathrooms. We also built a covered walkway system between the three buildings and the kennel structures, so people can stay dry when going from place to place.
How many staff members do you have?
All U.S. employees, including myself, are volunteers, with the exception of one paid assistant. There are nine employees in Peru.
On average, how many animals come to your rescue each year? How many adoptions take place?
Last year, we adopted out 67 dogs and cats. We have a strict adoption process and follow up on the families as well. We give adoptive families a 20-percent discount for life to encourage them to continue bringing their pets in for preventive and regular check-ups. The families tend to come from Iquitos and a few suburbs. People living within the city limits tend to have more resources to support pet ownership.
What are your favorite adoption or rescue success stories?
There so many happy stories. We rescue animals that are near death, and they show improvement within days. After a few months of treatment, their health is often fully restored, and they have been socialized, trained in basic commands, vaccinated and spayed or neutered. Thanks to donations from Lupine Pet, each adoptive family gets a leash and collar, which may not seem like a big deal, but they are rare in the area. When a family has these items they instill a sense of pride in ownership. I feel such pride when I see people walking their dogs on leads!
My favorite rescue stories are those where a disabled family member is part of the adoption. Rusty, a Boxer with a slight disability, was not the most adoptable dog. Yet he became the perfect pet for a blind teenager. When our veterinarian paid the family a visit, the teen and dog were bonded like brothers.
The photos on your website of dogs going through the transformation of getting the proper, humane care they deserve are incredible. How do you feel when you see these photos, knowing that you are the reason why all of this came to be?
Despite the successes I have had in life, these achievements bring me more pride than anything else does. Years ago, I remember having to step over dying dogs in the street every few feet. Watching these transformations is breathtaking. Unfortunately, we have our fair share of sad stories.
We treat captured wildlife, mostly young orphans, and their survival rate is not high. I actually tried to feed a tiny anteater from my own mouth, and he barely ate and did not survive. Like shelters all over, we deal with abandoned litters that are often too young and frail to survive. I actually once tried to revive a tiny kitten with CPR.
These heartbreaks, however, are overshadowed by the many success stories. These are the stories that continually bring me joy. I especially love visiting our adoptees and seeing how well integrated they are with their new family.
We try to take as many pictures as possible (the humidity quickly ruins cameras). My favorite is of an entire family crowded together on the couch. Their dog is in the middle and dressed up, and surrounding the large family are oversized, dressed-up dolls. It was an eerie picture in many ways, but also hilarious!
Tell us about your veterinary volunteer trips.
Our Vets Abroad program is extremely important to Amazon CARES and the government support we receive. These trips enable us to reach out to the most needy and remote communities on a large scale. We conduct four to five trips per year, several of which are co-sponsored by veterinary organizations.
This April, we have incorporated new eco-tourism opportunities into the trip. For many people this is their only chance to visit the Peruvian Amazon, which is the most pristine part of the Amazon that remains. We want them to get the most out of their experience, although the work schedules can still be grueling. We are very excited to recognize i Love Dogs, Inc. as our first sponsor for the April trip.
How do the locals feel about your presence in their community?
In the beginning, we had a very hard time finding a locale for an animal shelter. People had a mentality of “not in my neighborhood.”
The general thought was that it was a waste of time to help street dogs. They were treated as vermin, and suffered horrible abuse. People thought the presence of these dogs and their waste would contaminate their personal surroundings. Eventually we purchased jungle property, a 30-minute boat ride from our veterinary clinic in the city. This has been a great place for the animal shelter, and the animals have a lot of space!
Surprisingly and sadly, our greatest opposition is currently from members of the local veterinary association (a total of 11 members, including the two veterinarians from CARES). We are constantly under fire for undercharging or offering free services. They also make outrageous claims about the skills of our volunteers, who come from all over the world for our quarterly vet volunteer trips.
The local community has become very supportive. In six years, we have accomplished so much and there is visible difference in street dog health. Our constant spay and neuter campaigns have decreased the population of stray animals. We are innovative in reaching people.
Educational campaigns in schools are a mainstay, but recently we gave a talk to the local car association, so all the taxi drivers now know where they can bring hurt dogs and they can tell people about our services. They proudly affix a CARES bumper sticker on their taxis that translates into “Caring for Animals Makes Me More Human.” During our mobile clinics, they will even bring people and their dogs to us at no charge!
What is the one thing you want our readers to know about Amazon CARES?
We began our work facing a horrendous environment for animals, working in the worst possible conditions. Neither public or government support was on our side. Yet, over the years, we have changed their lives. We have educated and sensitized a community and we have stopped mass cruelty and killings of innocent animals.
We were the first team on the ground following the 2008 earthquake and tsunami, and we organized and housed over 30 international volunteers for relief efforts.
We have one paid employee in the U.S., and I am not that person! Despite excellent media coverage and a larger presence, we completely rely on donations to survive.
To make a donation to this great cause, visit the Amazon CARES website.
PHOTOS: Amazon CARES