Editorial Note: This is part of a series highlighting recipients of Lady Freethinker’s new Urgent Need Fund grant program, created to help nonprofits working to rescue or care for animals or raise awareness to improve the way animals are treated. Learn more about the program and how to apply here.
Dreams of hammocks and lazy mornings inspired Heather Johnson and her husband to move from New Jersey to Mexico in 2016, where an unexpected plot twist ended up creating the Beach Dog Rescue of Costa Maya.
One day, a skinny dog stopped Johnson in her tracks with his skeletal body and sad eyes. She lured the street dog to her car, named him Pinto, and drove him to the vet for emergency care.
Pinto did not survive, and Johnson cried a promise into his fur.
“I promised Pinto that I would spend my life making sure this never happened to another dog,” Johnson told Lady Freethinker (LFT). “Clearly, I can’t keep that promise, but I do get out of bed every day and work to make my corner of the world a better place for dogs.”
She turned her home into a shelter for dogs and incorporated the Beach Dog Rescue of Costa Maya as a nonprofit in 2019, with an aim to help the homeless, abused, sick, and abandoned dogs in Costa Maya, Mexico, through preventative treatments and spaying and neutering.
To date, the organization has sterilized more than 3,000 street dogs and cats, adopted out more than 200 dogs through rescue networks in Ontario and New York, and currently provides sanctuary for about 30 dogs, according to Beach Dog Rescue.
Animal patients include those suffering from easily treatable conditions – such as mange or ticks – but also animals who are victims of extreme abuse, including those who have been shot or attacked with knives or machetes.
LFT awarded Beach Dog Rescue a $10,000 grant through the Urgent Need Fund program to help cover rescue expenses, including food, medicine, sterilization, and veterinary care. Thank you so much to our readers and supporters, without whom these grants would not be possible!
The following Q&A combines the rescue’s grant application and an interview with Johnson. Answers have been edited for length. To learn more about Beach Dog Rescue of Costa Maya, check out their website here!
A Q&A with Heather Johnson, Co-Founder of Beach Dog Rescue of Costa Maya
How will you spend the grant funds?
The money will be divided between spay/neuter and vet care. Our next campaign is December 17 in a tiny pueblo named José N. Rovirosa on the border with Belize. Dogs and cats in these small towns have never seen a vet in their lives. Our goal is 50 surgeries. We will continue to bring these smaller targeted campaigns to those who need them.
I [also] belong to a local lost and found dog Facebook group. People are constantly giving away dogs, puppies, cats and kittens. In conjunction with my partner vet, I offer owners free spay/neuter for these animals before they are given in adoption. If the puppies/kittens are too young, I donate dog/cat food as an incentive for the owner to keep the animals until they are old enough for surgery.
Another program I offer is working directly with local animal advocates to get the homeless animals in their immediate area spayed/neutered. They take the dog/cat to my partner vet. I support the cost of surgery and recovery meds, and the advocate gives the animal a seven to 10 day temporary home before releasing the animal back to the street. It’s an incredible network, and I am grateful.
The other half of the grant will be spent on vet care. Homeless dogs are constantly getting hurt on the street. I help as often as I am able. Our vet is almost a 6 hour round trip away. To the extent that I’m able, I treat a lot of non-emergency issues at home. Local families often stop by to ask for a dewormer, a vaccine, or basic first aid for their dogs.
Tell us about some of the specific dogs you have helped.
Puppy Blackey was found on the street. It’s common for people to dump puppies in abandoned lots. Our partners found this pup and rushed her to our vet. She was adopted locally and is loved beyond measure.
Tuna was the victim of unimaginable violence. Someone cut her paw off with a machete. She is now living in Virginia Beach with her amazing parents who give her the world. Despite her mom’s pleas, Tuna refuses to snuggle, and it’s hysterical.
Bendita, now Phoebe, was found by our partner vet who believes she may have been thrown from a vehicle. Phoebe is now living in Massachusetts and goes to the dog spa way more often than I manage to get a haircut.
How do you build back trust with dogs harmed by trauma?
Our process for helping dogs to overcome trauma and develop confidence is straightforward. We leave them alone and let them set the pace. Fairly early on they learn that we are nice people who bring food. Once they’re a bit settled, we start to engage them in play, with us and with the dogs. Dogs move at their own pace, and we respect that.
What helps you through the hard times?
My life doesn’t look anything like I thought it would. My house smells like pee, my floors are filthy, and I can barely find time to shower most days, but the joy I feel when a dog I found lying limp on the street finds his forever home is a magic that is indescribable. It feels a lot like peace.
What would you like LFT supporters to know?
Mexico is a hard place to be a dog. We save the most vulnerable, sick, and broken dogs in our paths. Every animal saved is a tiny miracle and cause for celebration. Thank you for your trust in me and in my work. The dogs and I are forever grateful. These beautiful animals deserve compassion, kindness, and all the help and care we can give them.