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One Tough Cookie

The sight caused her to make a u-turn. Cintia Salazar Juarez, a single mother livingin the outskirts of the vibrant city of Buenos Aires, was walking down a street some years ago as she and her young daughter passed a dog with her pups living in a box next to the railroad tracks. When one of the pups approached them, Cintia’s daughter picked him up and the mama dog came out to defend her pup. Cintia considered moving on and took some steps away forward but, knowing the mama dog and her family would likely be hit by a train, Cintia turned back. The decision to pick up the mama dog, and the pups and take them home is the one-eighty that became a the turning point in the life path of Cintia Salazar and in the lives of thousands of injured, mistreated, lost and abandoned dogs in Argentina.

Cintia with Lola, her first rescue and a love of Cintia's life. Sadly, Lola recently began to suffer health issues and has passed.

According to a post dated February 18, 2015 titled: Ignorance, Indifference, Inflation Contribute to Growing Population of Stray Dogs, Cats in Buenos Aires by Ivonne Jeanott Laens of the Global Press Journal, in September of 2004 there were between 800,000 and 1 million cats and dogs in Buenos Aires. According to this same article, in 2015 the government of Buenos Aires had not yet been able to determine the pet population. I have had trouble finding exact figures but from what I have read, there are today approximately 100,000 stray dogs and cats in Buenos Aires. Dogs and cats that have homes are sometimes allowed to roam the city neighborhoods on their own during the day, putting them at risk of injury by traffic and giving them time to speed date and further increase the population. To be sure, many Porteños (how citizens of Buenos Aires refer to themselves) love and care about their dogs and cats, but with over population can come a lack of compassion.

Cintia Salazar’s foray into animal rescue with that mother dog, Lola, snowballed. Eyes open to the suffering dogs of Buenos Aires; Cintia began bringing home more and more dogs. With some in need of urgent medical care, she connected with local veterinarians and paid them with her own money, even going into debt. Through a stubborn refusal to become discouraged, Cintia created an NGO (non-governmental organization) called REFUGIO ZOOBREVIVIENTES, and opened a refuge for dogs. The word Zoobrevivientes is a made up mix of two Spanish words (zoo: animals and sobrevivientes: survivors). The Zoo has been a safe harbor for 75 or more dogs at a time. Dogs not only receive food, shelter and medical attention, but also positive human attention and many leave the refuge to go to real homes with caring families through Cintia’s efforts and efforts of volunteers that work with her.

I originally heard about Cintia through a friend, Maria Echevarria, who has family in Argentina. One family member is a cousin named Maria Marta who is also engaged in dog rescue in the country. It was Maria Marta who got me hooked on the Facebook page of REFUGIO ZOOBREVIVIENTES. When I learned Maria Echevarria had again traveled to Buenos Aires, I selfishly messaged her to see if she would be willing to use some of her precious time to interview Cintia Salazar and she did! Maria reports that as soon as she and her cousin arrived at Cintia’s dog refuge, Cintia put them to work helping out with chores and remarked to me that Cintia is “one tough cookie.”

You would have to be a tough cookie to face the heart breaking suffering of so many dogs day in and day out. Many pictures from the Zoobreviventes Facebook page are downright gruesome. Photos show dogs as Cintia finds them soon after being hit by a train or a car. Many have lost limbs and are bloodied. To view the pictures is awful but to be a first responder for these creatures, to find them in these horrible states and to have the internal drive to pick up more and more is just mind-blowing.

This rescue had been hit by a car and was left with two broken femurs.

Rescuing dogs off the street is only the beginning. Once a dog is in the refuge, a recovery process begins and then hopefully someone will make the dog part of a family. Cintia states that getting one dog adopted creates space in the refuge for another, but finding families to adopt dogs is her greatest challenge. She goes on to say: “That is not to say that we need to find one dog a home before we bring another into the refuge. We are always bringing dogs in and they tend to be dogs that are difficult to place because many have disabilities. We have dogs with all types of challenges and physical maladies including blindness, cancer, missing limbs, and aggressive tendencies.”

A safe and well-cared for pup after Cintia removed him and another dog from a home where they were starving to death

Another huge challenge in this work is the process itself: she and volunteers will take in a dog, help it recover and find a home for the animal and then start all over with the next dog that comes into the refuge. Burn out is a prevalent obstacle for folks engaged in this emotionally and physically draining work. Further, others grow accustomed to Cintia saving dogs and may not lend a hand. I saw a recent Facebook exchange between Cintia and someone who had reported the location of a dog that had been hit a by a car. When Cintia was unable to get there, the person wrote and blamed Cintia for the dog’s death. Cintia wrote back (to paraphrase): “Shame on you for being there near the dog and doing nothing to save it.”

When asked about what people can do to help keep dogs from ending up injured or abandoned, Cintia says: “People need to get involved and act to save dogs and keep them safe from harm. They should do what they can to help. Some people tell me they can’t visit our shelter, don’t have time to go out and rescue dogs from the street and don’t have room to take in a dog. But, at the very least, people can leave scraps from their plates outside for abandoned dogs and they can put some water outside for strays in their neighborhoods in Buenos Aires. More importantly, to keep dogs from ending up injured or abandoned, we need to have fewer dogs. That means people need to have their dogs spayed or neutered.” Sound advice you would hear from an animal rescue worker anywhere in the world.

Volunteers during a spay/neuter campaign

When asked what about her work brings her the greatest satisfaction, Cintia responds simply: “knowing that I have changed the course of one dog’s life for the better.” If you would like to see what Cintia does for dogs on a daily basis, please check out her Facebook page or her Refugio Zoobrevivientes website where you can also make a donation to help her change the course of a dog’s life. Be prepared to see some gruesome before pictures and some miraculous recoveries. Cintia repeats often the phrase: “The only disability is to be heartless.”

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