At 2:00 a.m. on August 26, Donna Liebrich left San Diego and headed east on I-8 for the Mexican border. Mexicali, her destination, is a good two-hour drive, depending on the Border Patrol checkpoint and other unknowns. As she drove into the mountains, Liebrich focused on the mission. Officials estimated it would take 26 bottles of Zoletil and 26 bottles of xylazine each month to humanely dispatch 3000 dogs, the number impounded by Mexicali’s federal perrera in July. As the sky lightened, she picked up the pace in order to make it by 5:00 a.m., when the daily execution of dogs begins.
For Liebrich, the sun rose over a far brighter “sacrifice day,” as the daily euthanasia of dogs is termed in Mexico, where the method used almost everywhere is electrocution. One week earlier, Mexicali — Baja’s capital — joined Tijuana, Tecate, Ensenada, and Rosarito, as well as Saltillo, in the state of Coahuila, in trading that practice for lethal injection, which animal advocates refer to as “humane euthanasia.” That puts much of northern Baja ahead of the pack in this country of over 100 million people — where dogs outnumber humans in some regions, according to the 2007 documentary Companions to None. The film took three years to complete, including the year it took filmmaker Bill Buchanan to obtain permission in Mexico to show scenes of electrocution.
For years, animal advocates on both sides of the border have decried Mexico’s use of electrocution to euthanize unwanted animals. But most efforts to better the lives of dogs have focused on how those lives begin, not end. U.S.- and Mexico-based groups have put their resources mainly into population control.
One San Diego rescue group, however, was founded solely to improve end-of-life conditions. The nonprofit Animal Advocates of the United States was launched in January 2009 by Marlene Revelan, Donna Liebrich, Erica Reynolds, and Laura Sandoval. “Only six locations in Mexico use lethal injection,” Revelan says. “Our purpose is to go back and forth to Mexico six days a week to make sure the dogs have humane euthanasia.” Also on the itinerary: making sure dogs have food and water in their final days. Tijuana’s perrera holds dogs for three days in case owners show up, which Revelan says happens “hardly ever.”
United Hope for Animals, a nonprofit organization, has been funding Animal Advocates with three-month grants, which cover the cost of the euthanasia drugs ($3000 per month) and the $80-a-week salary of a full-time worker in Tijuana. Mexican vets are working on a plan to purchase the drugs in Mexico, where they are less expensive. “There is no need to have someone on site in Rosarito,” Revelan says, “because those kennels have been compared to the Hilton.” But Revelan wishes the grant afforded them help in Ensenada and Tecate. “We know they use humane euthanasia,” she says, “but we don’t know what the other conditions are like.
“Every month, thousands of dogs are killed,” Revelan says. “The numbers are staggering.” The estimated monthly average: Tijuana, 1000; Rosarito, 200; Ensenada, 1000; Tecate, 100; Saltillo, 1000; and Mexicali, as the group just learned, 3000. (San Diego’s three county-run shelters — in Carlsbad, Bonita, and Mission Valley — combined killed 2205 stray dogs in fiscal year 2008–2009, according to county statistics.)
Although United Hope helped Tijuana switch to using humane euthanasia about three years ago, Rosarito, Ensenada, and Tecate started only this year. Animal Advocates and other Mexican and American groups, hopeful that euthanasia drugs could be provided to more locations in Mexico, met at the university in Mexicali in early August to discuss strategy.
Then on August 18, Revelan received a call from Dr. Joaquín Villaseñor, the director of Rosarito’s perrera, who told her that the director of the perrera in Mexicali, Dr. David Ibarra Ojeda, “had called him to set up a meeting to discuss humane euthanasia.” The meeting was set for the following morning at 8:00.
To reach Mexicali in time for the meeting, Revelan and Liebrich left San Diego at 5:00 the next morning. They found the federal perrera “clean and under control,” as Revelan describes it. “There were hardly any dogs even barking.” The two women were joined in Ibarra’s office by Dr. Villaseñor; Dr. Marco Antonio Tapia Miranda, the director of Tijuana’s perrera; and Craig Neilson of the spay-neuter group Give Some Life Foundation. (Dr. Villaseñor is a cofounder of Give Some Life.)
“Dr. Ibarra walked into the room, handed out his business card, and said, ‘I run this place,’ ” Revelan relates. Villaseñor and Tapia described to Ibarra how their perreras had transitioned to euthanasia by injection, explaining that, thanks to funding from United Hope for Animals and implementation by Animal Advocates, there are no electrocutions in Tijuana, Rosarito, Tecate, or Ensenada. Ibarra spoke mostly in Spanish, with Villaseñor translating his words for the English-only speakers. “But we could tell that things were going well,” Revelan says, “because everyone was agreeing and shaking their heads yes as they spoke Spanish.
“After what seemed like hours, Dr. Ibarra said that he would have no problem having his employees perform the procedure and, in fact, two already know how to do it.” Liebrich requested that someone from Animal Advocates be there to make sure the drugs were used properly on the dogs. Ibarra replied that they could be there anytime to supervise his workers.
Mexicali’s federal perrera employs 18 workers, but Revelan says the perrera would like twice as many “and more trucks.” Currently, six trucks scour the streets from morning to closing time, picking up strays. Each has room for 20 dogs. If only five of the trucks bring back 20 dogs each day, Revelan says, “They have their daily quota. I truly believe they pick up at least 100 dogs a day. Tijuana has only two trucks,” she says, “and one is usually not working.” But Tijuana “puts down over 100 dogs a day with far less staff and one-third of the trucks.”
Tijuana humanely euthanizes well over ten dogs each hour, Revelan says. “It’s just a tiny needle in the back leg, and within minutes the dog is completely out. Then a second needle that takes probably a minute or two.”
She adds that in Tijuana, “We are right there all the time. We know the dogs and are there when every single one is put down. There are no closed doors — even to the public. We are trying to convince Tijuana to put some down the same day they are caught, the ones in bad shape.” Rarely do owners show up, but they hold the dogs for three days, she says, “and when it is over the weekend, it can be longer.”
In the wake of recent disease outbreaks and mass culling of dogs, Revelan says the number impounded is increasing “due to greater pressure on animal control and people turning in their dogs because they think they carry a contagious disease.”
It would not be more time-consuming, Ibarra told them, to use injections. With electrocution, workers often get bitten when putting cables on the dogs. “So I guess they process each dog individually,” Revelan says. “I immediately asked to change the conversation because none of us, at that point, wanted the details.”
Revelan has never witnessed electrocution but knows she may have to if she wants to keep raising awareness about the procedure, which is said to be not only excruciatingly painful but slow and prone to errors. She gives credit to Liebrich for continuing with the work, despite the daily traumas. “I have never seen a dog brought into the perrera that has been burned, beaten, or hit by a car. She has.”
Revelan stresses that their territory is huge, the drive to Mexicali long, and “four people cannot be everywhere,” but she says the group isn’t quitting as long as electrocution is still in use. “We will continue our efforts throughout all of the kennels that are willing to change over but don’t have the money.” That includes Mexicali’s smaller state perrera, which holds only about 20 dogs.
“Any parts of Mexico that any of us can convert is a gift for the animals.”