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Alison Sawyer Current is used to finding buckets of puppies on her front doorstep in the morning. Sometimes older dogs, so thin their ribs are showing, are tied up outside, and sick ones, too ill to move, are left lying under the bushes in her garden.
As a lifetime lover of animals, Sawyer Current, 56, is the operator of the unofficial humane society of Isla Mujeres, Mexico, where she is known affectionately as Mujer de los Perros, the "Dog Lady."
Sawyer Current, a novelist and potter, and her husband, Jeff Current, first came to the tranquil island, a 25-minute ferry ride from Cancun, on a house-swapping vacation. They loved it so much they built their own place there in 2000. But it was hard to ignore the many stray dogs.
"We were always finding abandoned puppies," says Sawyer Current. "It's not the norm here to spay or neuter animals." When there are too many strays on the island, official dogcatchers round them up and electrocute them. "It broke my heart to see it."
In 2001 the couple had a fence and some pens built in their backyard, effectively turning their home into a rescue center. "If you love animals and live in Mexico, it's very hard not to get involved," Sawyer Current says.
Word soon spread around the five-mile-long island that the Yanqui was caring for unwanted dogs. "I see the buckets of puppies on our doorstep as a big improvement," says Sawyer Current, who may have as many as 20 puppies and 40 dogs in her house and yard at any time. "When they dump the dogs with us, it means the animals aren't being left to starve."
Sawyer Current eventually formed her own rescue organization, which she named Isla Animals. She doesn't have any formal veterinary training. She has picked up a lot from visiting American vets and techs who have volunteered for Isla Animals, though, and has sat up many a night coaxing a severely malnourished puppy to eat.
American and Canadian tourists often drop by to walk the dogs on the beach, sometimes taking home one or two they've fallen in love with. Isla Animals has recently teamed up with five shelters -- in Colorado, Florida, Minnesota, New York, and British Columbia -- that have agreed to help find permanent homes for the strays.
As a result of her work on Isla Mujeres, Sawyer Current received the 2005 Doris Day Animal Foundation's Kindred Spirit Award. And in 2007 she was invited to be a participant in the first-ever Forum on Small Animal Overpopulation, in Mexico City.
While Isla Animals does get some donations from tourists and visitors to its Web site, islaanimals.org, much of the money needed to run the center comes from Sawyer Current's pocket. She admits there's some sacrifice, but for her it's worth it. "I've wanted a new barbecue grill for at least three years, but every time I think about it we end up using that money to care for another dog," she says. "The dogs and puppies are our first priority."
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal, March 2010.