A version of this article originally appeared on VICE en Español.
“Make room, make room!” two exasperated young people yell as they move through the crowd. They’re carrying a medium-sized boxer mutt over a piece of cardboard, and the improvised bed is about to tear. The dog doesn’t bark or whimper in complaint even though the expression on its face is one of profound misery. It's unable to stand upright: one of its rear legs is destroyed, and you can see the torn muscle tissue with a gray center that carves down to the bone. It’s also covered in scars and malnourished to the point that its ribs protrude from the skin. When a bowl of dog food is placed nearby, it quickly eats while wagging its tail. No one knows if the dog was beaten, run over, or bitten. The only thing that’s certain is that the wounded animal was abandoned on December 12 at the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadalupe, also known as “La Villa,” just north of Mexico City.
The feast of Our Lady of Guadalupe is one of the most important Catholic celebrations in Mexico. The national holiday honors the Blessed Virgin Mary, who is considered to be the Queen of Mexico and the patron saint of the Americas. The Basilica devoted to her is one of the most visited Catholic pilgrimage sites in the world, attracting an estimated eight million devotees this year. For animals, however, it’s a calvary. Many of the pilgrims were accompanied by dogs—but not everyone went home together.
As a result, December is the busiest time of year for Norma, the founder of Mundo Patitas, or "World of Little Paws," an association dedicated to rescuing the abandoned dogs of La Villa. Launched 12 years ago and powered largely by volunteers including Norma’s daughter Mariel, the group hopes to rescue 25 to 30 dogs over the next few days. Once they’ve rounded the dogs up, they take them to a shelter in Huehuetoca in the state of Mexico, about an hour north of Mexico City. There, the dogs are fed and nursed back to health before being put up for adoption.
Currently surrounding the injured boxer are ten other dogs who’ve also been dropped off today. Vendors from nearby shops and street carts agreed that they hadn’t seen the dogs in the area the day before. Some lay resting on the ground, a few meters from the Basilica; others playfully approach passersby who stop to pet them; the ones who require veterinary care are cordoned off in small metal crates. Their issues range from mange, muscle spasms and missing mobility, paw wounds, and tumors. One particularly disconcerting Labrador sticks its tongue out as if it were dead—a sign of canine distemper, a measles-like virus for dogs. A few minutes earlier, a female pitbull, white with brown spots, was transported in the only ambulance available—a cardboard box on a dolly—to a parked truck two blocks away after having gone into labor with a litter of puppies.
Mundo Patitas’ efforts are widely recognized, and today is no exception: multiple people, adults and children alike, have approached their stand outside the Basilica asking how they can adopt one of the dogs. Some bring dog food or donate money into a sealed box covered with dog illustrations. Dogs that appear to be younger and in good health are undoubtedly more popular, but a few people still pet the visibly sick dogs in their crates.
They’re not the only organization working in the area today. Phirulais Foto Canina, founded by María Fernanda Camacho and Alan García, is also helping abandoned pups in the vicinity. The group doesn’t have a shelter to process the rescued animals, but they use mobile food dispensaries to feed hungry canines who get mixed up in the crowd of worshippers. Today, they’ve been able to feed over 60 dogs and have placed reflective collars on 40, helping ensure that the strays won’t be hit by cars in the night. The collar also indicates that the dog is available for adoption.
This year, at least 200 dogs were abandoned near the Catholic temple, according to Leticia Varela, a spokeswoman from MORENA, a social democratic political party in Mexico. Mundo Patitas argues that number is greater than 300 dogs. It begs the question: why force your dog to walk dozens of kilometers to the Basilica only to later leave it there?
According to Camacho, dogs wind up alone at the Basilica for three different reasons. First, worshippers arrive with their dogs and tie them up at the entrance gate or leave them nearby in the hopes of getting rid of them. Not all dogs are pets; some are stray dogs recognized by their local neighborhoods or towns, and they’ve followed the pilgrims here. Because no one is responsible for them, they’re generally left behind when the people return home via bus, bike, or other public transport.
The second reason is that they simply get lost in the throng of people who flood the streets. It’s common for a dog to break free from its leash and run through the crowd, and finding them among thousands of people is difficult.
Third, the dogs are local strays in Mexico City who flock towards the passing pilgrims, attracted by potential companionship and food they might offer. If you feed a stray animal, there’s a good chance it’s going to follow you. Upon arriving at La Villa, the dogs might turn from an endearing companion into a burden.
"If they are pets, why are they abandoned here?” I ask.
“I’ve thought about it a lot and I still don’t understand," Camacho replies. "Maybe they were bored with the dog or whatever, but I don’t understand why you would take such a long trip together just to abandon them. Maybe they think someone else can solve the problem since they see all the dog rescue organizations here. It’s strange to me that they come here and even more so since it’s a pilgrimage in honor of Our Lady, a very Catholic theme. Even though the trip is supposedly in that tone, they still abandon them.”
Phirulais Foto Canina is funded by ¿Les damos una pata? (“Let’s Give Them a Paw?”), a photobook with portraits of stray dogs in Colombia and Mexico. Using proceeds from the book sales, the organization has been able to neuter or spay 25 dogs and cats in addition to purchasing food and water for rescue campaigns like the one today. They hope that next year, less people will be inclined to abandon the animals.
It’s almost 6 PM and the thousand-fold crowd of people who’ve gathered at the shrine starts to disperse. Meanwhile, the dogs continue showing up at Norma and Mariel’s stands. The staffers are stretched thin and have begun asking people who are curious about Mundo Patitas to help keep the dogs calm in their enclosures. More and more volunteers appear, the majority of which are children and young people.
“For years I was confined to a rooftop, suffering through harsh weather with a chain so short I could barely move. Until I was rescued by Mundo Patitas, who gave me back my freedom, my dignity, and my trust in myself, and in humanity,” reads one flyer, with before and after photos of a rescued dog. “I’ve been adopted by a loving family who truly takes care of me, protects me, and values me.”
When the long day of work is over, the crew is faced with the task of fitting over ten dogs—one of which is about to give birth, and others who are ill—a table, bottles of water, bags of dog food, two metal crates, and various other boxes into Norma’s truck. After 20 minutes of Tetris-like strategizing, they figure it out: the sick animals go in the rear of the truck, the others in the middle, and the pregnant one in the passenger seat with Mariel.
In a few hours, the dogs will arrive at their temporary home; in the next couple of days, they hope to meet new families who will love and take care of them. Norma’s car turns onto the road and drives away from the Basilica with all the dogs wagging their tails.
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This article originally appeared on VICE LATAM.