Every once in a while the universe steps up, slaps you in the face and reminds you what really matters in this life. It’s time to wake up, pay attention and ask yourself why are you here? This happened to me recently when I found myself in a little town in Mazunte Mexico to participate in a mass sterilization project with a group of veterinarians form the USA (see Viva Mexico, Viva Mazunte Project!). Connecting with people from different backgrounds and experiences over a common goal while making an impact on local pets, local people and also improving the survival of a threatened species was pretty amazing. But then again, I have been on a lot of amazing projects on my journey from successful practice owner to drop out veterinarian so why did this project make such an impression on me?
Graduating from veterinary school in 1991, I arrived on the scene as our profession was undergoing a rapid transition. My early years as a small town mixed animal doctor were marked by a collegiality between veterinarians and veterinary practices that is slowly disappearing from our profession. At conferences when I ran into my colleagues from the practice “down the road”, we would share a beer, a story and a laugh. We would sometimes disagree on the way to manage cases, clients and our practices but there was always an underlying current of support. A feeling like, we are all in this together. Over time I watched our profession become more competitive, my colleagues more guarded and the collegiality that once existed between veterinarians more rare. It feels we have become a profession of perfectionists, afraid to admit our human frailties and reach out to each other for support. And yet it is this humanity and humility that makes for a truly great veterinarian.
Meet Rich Rodger, a veterinarian, humanitarian and driving force behind the Mazunte Project. As I worked on the project and heard Rich’s story I felt compelled to share it. He leads with humility and integrity and is a “boots on the ground” kind of guy that inspires others to follow his example. To me, Rich embodies that spirit of collegiality our profession is at risk of losing and it is for this reason as well as the amazing work this group is doing, that I want to share his story of the Mazunte Project. In an effort to preserve Rich’s voice, I have edited his answers for clarity and brevity only. I hope you enjoy.
The first mass sterilization project in Mazunte was in 2001. Tell me about how the Mazunte Project came to be and the people involved in those early years.
Like you and Rob, I figured when I retired I would give back. That opportunity arose before I retired when Dr Bob Labdon decided in 1993 the Massachusetts Veterinary Medical Association needed an international group and asked who would be interested. In my usual fashion, I somehow missed the invitation. A friend of mine told me about it and said they were planning a trip to the Dominican Republic for 1994. I signed on and found that from the original group of 30+ volunteers, the only ones making the trip were Bob Labdon, Jay Merriam, Bob’s son, a former tech from Bob’s practice and myself. Bob was paying for three plane tickets plus most of the supplies. It was then I realized Bob’s dedication to making this group a reality. It became known as Project Samana. I was part of the Project for 7 years.
About 5 years into Project Samana I thought we should do something in Mexico, so with my good friend Dr David McCracken, we began making trips down here (Oaxaca coast).
I had called my Reproduction prof who I had played touch football with as a student as we had always gotten along real well. He put me in touch with Dr. Aline Schunemann de Aluja who was Professor Emeritus of Pathology at UNAM and was running an animal welfare program for Equids with funding from UNAM, IDT and an International Donkey Protection Agency. The provinces need more help than Mexico City. Oaxaca and Chiapas are the poorest states in Mexico.
Editors Note: Rich attended veterinary school in Mexico City (curriculum in Spanish) graduating from UNAM with honours in 1978. Following graduation Rich was involved in research as well as general private practice in North Grafton, MA.
We decided we would travel with them to see if we could establish a small animal arm within their group. So for two years David and I traveled with them doing spays wherever they were doing large animal work. There are a lot of stories within those two years that I’ll pass on for now. After two years, I told them I wasn’t seeing a situation where I felt we could make an impact (on the small animal side). The wife of the head veterinarian in our group suggested Mazunte where she had done an internship and knew they needed help controlling the dog population. There were no phone lines to Mazunte at the time, so she and her husband (David Oseguera and Eliza Ruiz) personally traveled to Mazunte and spoke to the director to see if he was open to us coming down there. He was, so we started planning our initial trip for January 2001.
Full circle, Bob Labdon was part of that first trip, as were Hugh Davis and Nancy Fantom, an intern from the MSPCA, Martha Smith, Peter Brewer (a vet whose family owned a zoo), Mark Smith, (an animal capture expert for zoos), Alan Borgal and Rigaud Lee from the Boston Animal Rescue League and myself.
The first day we set up in front of the San Agustinillo town hall to see if we could drum up any interest. We had a hard time because another group had preceded us, who were not as organized and lost a large number of their patients due to being hit by cars following surgery.
The following day we went out to Escobilla beach where we were darting the dogs and bringing them to surgery. There were four of us doing surgery (Bob, Hugh, Martha and I) while Nancy teched (term for a veterinary nurse or technician) with either Alan or Rigaud, and the one who wasn’t teching was out helping Mark and Peter dart dogs. While we were darting the dogs and doing the surgeries (we were already accustomed to operating on dogs with Ehrlichia from working in the Dominican Republic), a woman came up to me and said she could get the people to bring the dogs to us so we didn’t have to dart them. That helped a great deal, but we still had to dart the occasional dog to stay busy!
Editors note: Ehrlichia is a tick borne disease causing anemia and low platelet counts (amount other things) and making surgery more challenging.
We didn’t have a good site in Mazunte, so I think we spent 2 or 3 days in Escobilla on the beach, and 2 or 3 days in San Agustinillo at the Casa Municipal. I think all together we did 50+ dogs and less than 10 cats that first year. The second year we grew in numbers and sites. Pam joined us that year as did our daughter Becky, and David and Eliza, who were instrumental in starting the program.
Editors note: Compare this to 744 animals sterilized in 2019.
Porfirio Hernandez and Marcelino Lopez-Reyes were vets at the turtle center at the time. Neither of them did surgery that year, but helped tech, register patients and assisted in recovery. They both became more involved with the surgeries in subsequent years. Alan Borgal of the Boston Animal Rescue League tells a story about Marcelino that year. He relates that the first year we came, Marcelino ignored him or paid little attention to his/our efforts. The second year when we came back, he greeted Alan with a big abrazo that caught him completely off guard, since the year before he wouldn’t give him the time of day. We asked him about the change of heart, and he said “you came back”.
Why did you decide to start this initiative and/or what was the driving force behind it?
The decision to start the project goes back to vet school. Having gone to vet school here (Mexico), and seeing the needs back then has always been in my consciousness. Figuring out how to help crystallized with the success of Project Samana. The fact that we named it the Mazunte Project is to show they are sister projects. To Bob, Jay and I they always will be. There are a few others who have done both projects, Liz is one of them, Linda and our son and daughter (John and Becky) are others. As the years go by, each project takes on its own personality and connections are lost.
Committing to one project and place, helps me understand the nuances of the problems better and helps our focus and understanding of where we have to concentrate our efforts. Hopefully it will also help us encourage other groups to help on all three fronts: humans, pets and wildlife. Already our daughter wants to help on the human end, Pam does too. Even though those projects aren’t in action, they’re being conceptualized, which is one of the most important steps.
Describe how the campaign has changed and grown from those early days.
The growth has been incremental over the years, we grew from one team to two teams, then three, four and this year we went to five. Having Spanish speakers has been key to growth. For many years we stayed as two teams until we were able to get someone bilingual to allow us to expand.
Our numbers of animals sterilized has increased each year, due to both the growth in participants and increased responses of townspeople bringing their pets to be spayed, the latter being key.
The mission hasn’t really changed, since it has always been to help the turtles, other wildlife, dogs and cats and by extension, the people. We have always maintained a One Health attitude, with the emphasis on spay/neuter. Since 2012 we have tried to help him (Marcelino) out with Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, forming a 501c3 in November of 2016 to more effectively fund raise for this group.
For you personally, what has been the most rewarding aspect of being involved with this initiative over the years?
I continue because I love being part of the enthusiasm this project engenders. I’m ready to turn over the leadership to others any time someone else wants to step in and would continue to participate even if it meant just being a translator.
I think I continue to bring new aspects to the project just because of my contacts down here. Today I was in a meeting at the Turtle Center discussing the feral dog problem on Morro Ayuta beach, and what role(s) we, could play in addressing it. We’ll see how it plays out. We are already planning for next year and will be adding two new towns down the road.
I think the other things that keep me involved are the constant changes and moving targets that need to be addressed. Once it’s on cruise control (if that ever happens), I’ll be glad to step aside knowing it’s (the Mazunte Project) in good hands. I know it would be in good hands now, if something happened to me, the “morphing” would just take place more slowly.
What are your hopes or aspirations for the Mazunte Project, moving into the next decade?
My hopes and aspirations for the project are multiple. More participation by Oaxaca vets would be nice. Marcelino needs a successor. Where do you find someone as selfless as he has been to run not only Palmarito (Sea Turtle Rescue), but the Iguanario and our efforts as well. I’m looking, but it would have to be a paid position, and I can’t foresee anyone bringing the energy and dedication he has brought to the position he created! Some of the biggest advances could be political if they ever take place. After that, I would like to see the cultural changes take place. If the market (for turtles and turtle eggs) goes, so does the poaching.
If people want to support the Mazunte Project and sea turtle conservation along the Oaxaca coast, how can they help?
There are a number of ways to help. First by participating in the Mazunte Project (becoming involved in the sterilization project each January), patrolling the beach (you would have to be able to identify the species of turtle by its tracks, and also be able to locate the nest), digging nests, acting as a guide for people in their native language, educating the public, (wherever you may be), spreading the word about what we do, and as always, financial support.
Education is a big one. It can simply be telling what we do, or even better, being able to describe the biology and plight of sea turtles and what measures need to be taken to reverse the Leatherback and Green turtles current decline in the Pacific. (Note: the Olive Ridley population is currently considered stable)
The best way to make a donation rests with the donor. Sustaining monthly donations are great! Donations can be made at www.palmaritoseaturtlerescue.org through PayPal (who takes a small percentage). If someone is going to make a one time donation, they can mail a cheque to:
Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue
6 Mahlert Ct.
Auburn, MA 01501
This insures that 100% of the donation will go directly to helping the sea turtles, I pay all the administrative costs.
People can also donate through our facebook page. Bottom line is every donation goes directly to helping the sea turtles.
Finally, is there anything else you would like people to know about the Mazunte Project or Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue?
Yes, if people shop Amazon, they can choose Amazon Smiles and list us (Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue) as their charity. If that occurred nationwide it would be a huge help! Ask everyone you know to sign us up as your charity on Amazon. Right now, I am guessing we have 30 or 40 people signed up which amounts to about $150 to $200 annually. If we had 300 or 400 people, the donations would increase by a factor of 10. Just imagine if we had 3000 or 4000 people. Just $1500 to $2000 would buy a lot of gasoline or pay an employee for 5 months!
Editors note: Marcelino and his employees use ATVs to patrol the beaches, collect turtle eggs and protect hatchlings. This year has been especially difficult with old ATV’s in need of repair or replacement.
Well, as Rich would say “that about sums it up”. I also asked Rich about the key players over the years and he responded by saying that the project has “been very fortunate with the talented and passionate people it has attracted”. He went on to list the many dedicated volunteers who return year after year to lend their skills as well as the many people who work behind the scenes and often go unrecognized but are equally important in the projects’ success. Given my fear of leaving someone out, I have decided not to list the many key players and volunteers who are instrumental in the success of the Mazunte Project. Please know you are appreciated, your efforts have not gone unnoticed and most importantly, you are making a difference.
If one more turtle makes it back to lay eggs on the beach from where it was born, does anyone care? I do and so should you.