A network of Big Bend dog rescuers want every tail to have a happy ending

Photos courtesy Sergio Carrasco

FAR WEST TEXAS – When Sergio Carrasco took the job of animal control officer at the city of Presidio nearly four years ago, he wasn’t sure if it was right for him.

“I like animals myself, and I don’t like euthanizing,” Carrasco said. “I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to do this job. It’s easy to euthanize across the board and say, ‘Hey, it’s a Monday through Friday job.’ But I’m not that way.” But with his wife currently residing in Ojinaga, he wanted work near the border to help her immigrate, so he decided to give animal control a chance. At the time, the number of stray and abandoned dogs was daunting.

Heather Hall, a Terlingua resident said, “At the very beginning of 2019, my friend Lori Benavides took me to the Presidio shelter.” Her friend had ties to the Presidio community and “was really discouraged by the disparity between the advocacy that was happening in Alpine.”

Hall first came to the Big Bend area in 1996 as an Americorps volunteer, but it wasn’t until years later she officially came to call Terlingua her home, and it was another decade until she became acquainted with Carrasco at the Presidio Animal Shelter.

After seeing the shelter, it took Hall only 48 hours to relocate a Great Pyrenees and a pug into warm, loving homes.

“I made a little resolution that I’d try to help every animal in that shelter in that year,” Hall said, “and basically we did.” She began re-homing dogs – and a few cats – from Presidio, the Big Bend parks, Terlingua and even a couple pooches that immigrated from Mexico’s Boquillas and Santa Elena.

Once Hall arrived, Carrasco knew he couldn’t go back to the status quo. While the city of Presidio pays for his salary and the cost of dog and cat food, Carrasco said he avoids adding any other expenses for fear they’d be cut from the city budget during slim times.

Instead, he’s worked with Hall to get more resources from donors. Hall started The Underground Dog, a rescue that raises funds to vaccinate local dogs and rescue them from a death sentence in kill shelters. With the help of Carrasco administering the shots, every dog in the Presidio shelter now gets vaccinated. And last year, no dog in the Presidio shelter that could be safely handled by a human was euthanized.

Carrasco said if Hall tells him a dog needs a late pickup from the vet or a ride to another town to meet their foster he’ll do it, “because that just means one more animal will get saved or can be helped.”

And Hall said she couldn’t do it without Carrasco either. “I could probably move five dogs from Presidio if it wasn’t for Sergio. He vaccinates every single one that comes through.”

All of the effort and care from the duo leads to success stories like Canelo, a pit bull surrendered to the shelter in Presidio. “Canelo the pitbull, I don’t think he knew he was a pitbull, he was so nice and friendly. This one was special, at least for me,” said Carrasco.

After arriving at the shelter, Canelo was in poor shape with bald patches and scabs, but nevertheless sweet. After vaccines, treatment and a full recovery, Canelo found a forever home in the Pacific Northwest, thanks to Hall’s growing network to move dogs out of Presidio and into eager adopters’ homes.

Canelo was one lucky dog. But since the pipeline of dogs moving north from the Big Bend has been established, Canelo is only one of more than 150 dogs that One Tail at a Time, a Portland-based rescue, has been able to adopt out. Hall now organizes transports for dogs that aren’t finding homes in Presidio.

Carrasco goes out of his way to do more than house and feed the strays that end up at the local shelter. On a Friday in late October he was set to meet Hall between Presidio and Terlingua to hand off a dog. While the pup had a flight booked to Portland in November, it needed to stay with a foster until then, so that Carrasco could free up room in the shelter and get the dog prepared for its trek north.

Finding temporary fosters for dogs is one of the largest challenges Marilyn McGhee faces in her attempts to save Big Bend dogs. McGhee has been running Jethro Homeward Bound Pets, her fly-by-night dog rescue, for eight years. Living in Fort Davis and working in Alpine, she helps dogs in both communities, and does her best to pull dogs from a high-kill-rate shelter in Fort Stockton. “It’s like sipping off a firehose to be in rescue around here.”

McGhee works with other groups like Hall’s The Underground Dog, the Alpine Humane Society, Grand Companions and others in Fort Stockton and Marathon to form a patchwork network of animal rescues across the region. Her own organization has transported nearly 500 dogs a year in the past few years alone.

Jethro (rhymes with death row) is “more targeted in helping the shelter not get full and not get to the point of euthanizing to make space,” McGhee said. She has leveraged social media to share photos of dogs who are running out of time, find adopters and fosterers and help dogs hitchhike their way to other cities where permanent or temporary homes await them.

Often, dogs just need someone to be the bridge between the shelter and their permanent homes. While dogs can be transported to the Midwest or Northwest to find homes, usually, the car or plane taking them is not immediately available. If a kill-shelter dog has 24 hours before euthanization and a two-week wait before their plane trip to Oregon, a foster is the only way to keep the dog alive in the meantime.

Hall said Presidio dogs listed on the Portland rescue’s site regularly get 50 applications – the maximum number of applications OTAT will accept – from people eager to adopt them. The challenge is taking care of those dogs until they can get to the homes that want them.

Even so, moving dogs north from Texas isn’t the ultimate ideal outcome. Transportation is stressful for the animals and costs hundreds or thousands of dollars to immunize, fix and transport them safely. “We’re eating costs left and right here,” McGhee said. “I can’t really tell you why we do this. It’s definitely a money sucking, time sucking thing to do.”

Despite that, “It’s just something I wake up and do; I can’t look away now that I’ve seen it.But as it stands, it’s much easier to move the dogs across the country than to find homes locally.

“It’s hard to be a dog owner here,” said Hall. “I didn’t realize it much until I started looking at what was in Portland.” Dog parks in the Big Bend aren’t as fancy, she pointed out. “And you could be 100 miles from the vet, easily.”

Getting a dog in Presidio vaccinated and fixed means multiple hours-long trips to and from the vets in Fort Davis, Alpine or Terlingua. And if the animal falls ill, Hall said, you “have to think twice” about when it’s enough of an emergency to make the hours-long trek.

For the shelter dogs without owners, Hall said they have it rough. “The dogs in Presidio are really exposed to a lot of the raw elements. They come in a lot sicker than the dogs in Alpine. It’s a double whammy. Not only do they need a vet more, they’re further away. Ticks are worse there, and predation is worse there.”

“It’s a tough place to be a human,” said Hall. “We all go without a bit being out here, but the dogs go without a lot, a lot of the time.”

Hall does think there is a way to overcome the multiplying number of stray and shelter dogs and get ahead of it. “Spaying and neutering animals is the way to go. If you facilitated that, then you would see a rapid decline in the number of pets there, but you need to facilitate it. You need a mobile vet clinic that drives up to people’s houses and that costs nothing.”

But with the help of transporters, fosterers and rescuers, adoption successes are extending through the Big Bend and beyond. In 2018, Texas was the state with the highest number of shelter pets euthanized, but since, its life-saving rate has improved by 15%, according to Best Friends Animal Society, a group set on reaching no-kill status in the United States by 2025.

“There’s people in Marfa who may have been reluctant to do something like this, but I think there’s at least one Heather in every community who might be willing to think about this stuff,” Hall said. “I hope somebody thinks this is doable.”

In Marfa, George Gonzalez, the animal control officer, said they try to avoid euthanizations, and usually end up resorting to it when the shelter fills with very old dogs. Last week, the officer had to collect 20 dogs from a small trailer in town. “We’re trying to adopt them out,” he said, and at least two have already found homes.

In 2018, Presidio had 101 dogs enter its shelter, and only 69 were saved according to BFAS. But this year, Carrasco says he’s had to euthanize only two dogs thanks to the help of Heather and other shelter volunteers.

Across organizations, there are many ways to pitch in to help the domesticated four-legged residents of the region. Most rescues and shelters here accept donations of food, supplies and financial contributions. Many urge pet owners to spay or neuter their pets and to encourage their fellow pet owners to do the same. And for those without funds or time to donate, a simple share of information on social media goes a long way, according to McGhee.

Hall said, “I hope that Presidio is a model, even if you don’t have a humane society and an endowment, and you’re in an impoverished community with six kennels in a shed.”

In Presidio, those who want to talk about what can be done or to donate can call 432-556-5010, and in Marfa, Gonzalez said donations can be made at city hall to the animal shelter. For Jethro Homeward Bound Pets, the biggest thing, according to McGhee, is “finding fosters, then maybe getting money, and then finding transports. If we can’t find the fosters we can’t get them out in the first place.”