In a place where they said it couldn’t be done
From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 1999:
ROSARITO, Mexico– – Disting-
uished since 1926 by the presence of the landmark
Rosarito Beach Hotel, one of the first
facilities built to draw tourists to the Baja
California coast, Rosarito recently acquired
another landmark: the first no-kill animal
shelter serving northern Mexico.
But the Baja Animal Sanctuary isn’t
yet a visible landmark, and that is perhaps the
biggest problem the two-and-a-half-year-old
shelter has. To get there from Boulevard
Benito Juarez, the main street of Rosarito,
you have to cross the tollway to Ensenada,
turn a tight hairpin turn at the old town graveyard,
and follow the bulldozed but otherwise
unimproved future route of a long-rumored
four-lane highway out through three miles of
developments that don’t yet exist. You turn
off in the middle of nowhere, continue past a
bankrupt and unoccupied condominium complex
whose scenic vistas of sea and mesa evidently
couldn’t compensate for inaccessibility
and lack of water, and descend a steep hill
down a road that threatens to become a gully.
When you see the dogs, 270-to-300-
odd transients in crudely fenced runs with half
a dozen longtermers lounging in the road and
driveway, you’re there. Just turn in through
the adobe brick arch.
A real estate salesperson in her previous
career, Baja Animal Sanctuary founder
Sunny Benedict knows location is everything.
Opening a thrift store and adoption center on
Boulevard Benito Juarez is among her ambitions.
But the rented house and surrounding
acre the sanctuary now occupies are, for the
moment, the only location available. Benedict
tried to buy an adjoining parcel once, but was
thwarted when the owner chose to gamble
instead that the someday four-lane highway
will be completed within his lifetime.
Rosarito spread rapidly north from
the Rosarito Beach Hotel in recent years, as
word spread of the now reknowned surfing
beach. Continued growth at the pace of the
past 20 years could increase the present
regional population of about 100,000 people to
four times as many by 2020. With the coast
now developed from Tijuana to well south of
Rosarito proper, expansion into the foothills
toward the Baja Animal Sanctuary has become
inevitable. The town itself owns most of the
land between the sanctuary and the fringe of
the present community. Sooner or later, deals
will be cut, roads will be paved, signs will go
up, and development will turn the now remote
sanctuary site into a prime location.
But then the sanctuary will be unable
to keep it. As the land and building are rented,
they can easily be priced out of affordability
for an animal shelter. That discourages investment
in permanent site improvements––like
renovating the old building, bringing in electricity,
and drilling a well.
The Baja Animal Sanctuary in-house
clinic sees to it that all animals are neutered
prior to adoption, and neuters several already
owned pets per week at cost––or free––for
impoverished Rosarito residents. They even
do early-age neutering. Yet staff veterinarian
Carina Toledo does most of her surgery by
unaided daylight, finishing by propane lantern
if necessary. There is no X-ray machine, no
autoclave, and no electric cauterizing.
Living in a travel-trailer at the sanctuary
during her three days of duty each week,
Toledo is engaged to marry another veterinarian
in August. Benedict fears she may depart to
enter private practice, and wonders where
another vet may be found who has comparable
patience with the difficult conditions.
The present sanctuary water source
is a stock tank situated at the highest corner of
the lot, refilled weekly by a truck from town.
There is no pump, and therefore no hose.
Gravity pushes water into the sanctuary taps.
Permanent site improvements could
increase donor support. But they could also
hasten the day that the landlord decides to use
the property for more lucrative purposes.
Any way Benedict and supporters
figure it, they need their own site in order to
follow up their progress. The question is how
to get it. Benedict hoped the town might
donate use of municipal land, in trade for a
formalized animal care-and-control agreement.
As the only shelter for hours’ drive in any
direction, despite a much-ignored Mexican
law requiring communities to have animal control,
the Baja Animal Sanctuary now provides
“animal care-and-control” by default. The former
mayor of Rosarito honored the sanctuary
with a certificate attesting to the value of their
work, on the day that he left office. But land
has never been offered. And a formal deal
with the town could also be precarious,
between the strings that might be attached and
the possible transience of political favor.
The Baja Animal Sanctuary does not
yet have any wealthy patrons. The sanctuary
began when Benedict placed a newspaper ad,
asking anyone interested in forming a humane
society to attend a meeting. Eighteen people
came, contributing $10 apiece to open a bank
account and begin nonprofit incorporation.
None had prior experience in humane work;
before getting into real estate, Benedict was a
ballet dancer and teacher in New York City.
Benedict admits they weren’t prepared
to handle the volume of animals they
soon received. Neither were they prepared for
the extent of neglect some animals had suffered.
But it was only after the Baja Animal
Sanctuary began to attract notice beyond
Rosarito that they realized they were taking on
a job that experts with major international
organizations had already declared impossible.
Now the sanctuary motto includes
the phrase, “In a place where they said it
couldn’t be done.”
They were wrong
Whatever “they” said, however,
was wrong. Resolutely no-kill, the Baja
Animal Sanctuary i s doing the job, with
results readily evident. Though Rosarito still
has stray dogs and cats, they are conspicuously
fewer than in Tijuana, Ensenada, or
Mexicali. Dogs and cats seen at large are also
less likely to be pregnant or nursing.
Observed the late Mary Melville, in
a December 1998 letter telling A N I M A L
P E O P L E about the Baja Animal Sanctuary,
“In our immediate community of San Antonio
Del Mar [just north of Rosarito], there are
leash laws, and you don’t see many dogs running
loose. Those who are loose usually just
belong to people who let them run. Since the
streets are all paved with stones, cars move
slowly, so the dogs are rarely in danger of getting
hit. Outside San Antonio, in the towns
and up in the hills, dogs are everywhere, but
most of them look well-fed. I offered a few
begging street dogs Milk Bones, and they
didn’t even eat them. What you come to realize
is that a lot of them have owners, whose
attitude about letting dogs run all over the
place is very casual. Those who are completely
on their own apparently prefer leftovers
from the omnipresent food stalls. If you offer
the dogs burritos, or canned dog food, they
will hungrily gulp it down, but offer dry dog
bones and they just sniff and walk away. The
most pitiable cases are dogs who have skin disorders,
but we have seen relatively few serious
cases. We haven’t seen a lot of cats,”
whose numbers are apparently suppressed by
the free-roaming dogs.”
Melville, a longtime Michigan animal
rights activist who was the very first ANIMAL
PEOPLE subscriber, repeatedly urged
us to visit and write about the Baja Animal
Sanctuary––but died of a sudden severe asthma
attack on Easter 1999, just before we did.
There are four private-practice veterinarians
on Boulevard Benito Juarez in
Rosarito, whose competition may help to
encourage neutering among those who can
afford to pay. But, though Baja California is
among the more affluent parts of Mexico,
affluence is relative. Dire poverty, by U.S.
standards, is still a constant presence.
Outreach to the poor, according to a
1998 article for the Baja Sun by another local
realtor, Audre Pinque, began in 1993 via
Dorothy York and Veterinarians for World
Animal Health, a group of eight volunteer vets
who began making annual visits to the Templo
Christiano Elim-Mexico in Colonia Santa
Anita, the village nearest to the Baja Animal
Sanctuary. The small church, for a day,
became a makeshift clinic. The sanctuary
operates in a similar spirit.
Difficult though the location is,
Rosarito residents find their way out to the
sanctuary often enough to have dropped off
more than 1,200 dogs and cats so far, of
whom more than 80% have been placed in new
homes. Most of the rest are still in residence,
many of them likely to find new homes as
soon as they seem healthy enough to take to
the PETsMART Charities Luv-A-Pet Adoption
Center in San Diego.
The sanctuary dog population is normally
within 10-20 either way of 300; the cat
population is around 55-60. Other residents
include a flock of pigeons and a hen. There
are semi-isolated facilities for dogs with skin
diseases, of which mange is most common,
and cats with upper respiratory infections.
Huge dogs are scarce in the desert climate.
The majority are small-to-middle-sized mongrels,
of conspicuously friendly temperament.
Conventional belief holds that keeping
dogs in large groups results in some eventually
packing up and attacking the rest.
But––as at the Best Friends sanctuary in Utah,
which also keeps large groups in pens––the
Baja Animal Sanctuary has had little such
trouble. Benedict has no explanation why.
The dogs may take their cue from Sabado, a
large dark-muzzled, yellow-bodied mixedbreed
who seems to maintain a benign monarchy.
He has been adopted out several times,
but always unsuccessfully. The sanctuary
seems to be Sabado’s home of choice; he will
not be adopted out again.
Some of the free-roaming long-term
residents serve as Sabado’s sentries and
greeters. He seems to accept their counsel
with a nod: these folks are okay. Those need
to be barked at. Who’s that coming? The sentries
go to sniff. His top general is Cazador, a
German shepherd mix who was adopted to a
farmer but ran back to the shelter.
Ambassadors are Tripod, who lost a leg to a
car, and Tesuku, an English sheep dog.
“The remarkable thing one notices
about Mexican-born dogs,” volunteer
Stephanie Moore told ANIMAL PEOPLE,
“is their sociability. Most run in packs on the
street. There are few displays of aggression.”
The Baja Animal Sanctuary dogs
definitely get along better than certain sincedeparted
volunteers. During late 1998 and
early 1999, Benedict weathered an attempted
hostile takeover. Styling herself “director,”
one U.S.-based ex-volunteer sent poison pen
letters to various organizations, including one
that perplexed ANIMAL PEOPLE b e c a u s e
we had no idea what it was about.
Help, so far, has come mostly from
the U.S. side of the border. Volunteer Marie
Elias, for instance, handles e-mail communications
and newsletter production from her
home in San Pedro, California. San Diegoarea
volunteers Moore, Lisa Watson, Terry
New, and others bring supplies. Other volunteers
haul food, take animals to PETsMART,
groom animals, and are setting up a web site.
The American helpers have at times
run afoul of Mexican bureaucracy. For example,
recounts Moore, “Not long ago, the
North County Humane society generously
donated a van. While a mechanic was checking
the van in Tijuana, the equivalent of the
Mexican IRS pulled it over and confiscated it.
Despite having paperwork proving ownership,
Sunny did not prevail. The van now sits in a
fenced yard with other foreign-plated latemodel
cars, vans, and trucks in Tijuana. No
one has been able to help Sunny get it back.”
As few Rosarito residents are affluent
enough to be able to volunteer substantial
time, the Baja Animal Sanctuary anticipates
relying on U.S. visitors and retirees for most
hands-on help for years to come. But since the
rapidly expanding retiree population is driving
the economic growth of the region, that suggests
an increasing opportunity, rather than a
problem––and, as the community becomes
more familiar with humane services, greater
Mexican involvement is sure to develop.
[The Baja Animal Sanctuary accepts
donations at Mex 626, POB 439060, San
Diego, CA 92143-9060. The e-mail address