Thanks to one man’s courageous and tire- less efforts, life has become a lot better for the strays of this Mexican town.
On any given morning, Steven Forman feeds his six rescue dogs, checks his e-mail, then packs his car for the 130-mile trip to a storage unit just north of the Mexican/ US border. There, he looks over the new boxes of shoes that have arrived, then packs and ships another 20 pairs sold that week to his eBay customers. All the proceeds from this time-consuming endeavor go to fund the Zero Additional Pup-ulation Project (ZAPP, sfzapp.com), a spay/ neuter clinic he has run for the last six years in San Felipe, Baja California.
Steven’s efforts began when he came to this small town eight years ago with his late partner, Mark Dille, to retire on a meager social security income. “We had just sold our house and didn’t have a lot of equity,” he says. “Money went farther here.”
They opened a small restaurant, but devoted every spare minute to volunteer for San Felipe Animal Rescue. “Early in the mornings, we went out to the rescue to help feed the animals and administer any medications they might need,” says Steven. “Then we came back into town to open the restaurant. After the business day was over, we went out to the rescue again.”
Eventually, Steven and Mark gave up their restaurant business and devoted themselves full-time to San Felipe Animal Rescue, taking over as many responsibilities as possible when the founder had to retire, and starting ZAPP in an effort to bring local dog populations under control.
Two weekends a month, ZAPP’s veterinarian, Dr. Antonio Solis, former Professor of Reproductive Surgery at the University of Baja California Veterinary School, performs free spay/neuter operations and other health services for as many as 40 dogs. “Since 2003, more than 7,000 surgeries have been performed,” says Steven. By his calculations, they have prevented the birth of hundreds of thousands of stray and neglected dogs, many of whom would have been unvaccinated females producing puppies with compromised immune systems.
Previously, state officials rounded up dogs, driving them 130 miles to Mexicali where the animals were impounded, and when not picked up by anyone, euthanized. “Most of the people here make 1,000 pesos a week – that’s only about $80,” says Steven. “That’s a whole tank of gas for them to pick up their dogs. They had to make a choice between feeding their children and rescuing their dogs.”
Thanks to Steven’s efforts, San Felipe’s new mayor, Roberto Ledon, recently implemented a new program with the cooperation of animal control in Mexicali. “Roberto is definitely on the same page I am,” says Steven about his new ally. “Instead of taking the dogs miles away, they’ve set up pens at the local police station so people can claim their dogs within 48 hours. He’s also promised a substation outside of town where the dogs will be held for another week. Now people can pick up their animals locally and we do a giant adoption of the strays. Hopefully none of the dogs will be euthanized. And, of course, we continue spaying and neutering so that ultimately, in three to five years, we’ll reach a point where the town won’t need to do these roundups.”
Running such an operation under the best of circumstances is demanding, but add a language barrier, an impoverished local community and a culture that has traditionally undervalued dogs, and you have the formula for a nightmare. Fortunately, Steven has been up to the challenge right from the start, even after the loss of his partner. Like many people who come to this kind of work, his own personal trials motivated him to take on this very vulnerable – and often discarded – population. “I got clean and sober in 1998 after using drugs in one form or another for 37 years,” he says. “I made the decision that I was going to live my life by making amends on a global, or at least a local, level.”
ZAPP relies on donations and also raises funds through its “Shoes for Spays Project”. “We take donations of gently worn or brand new men’s or women’s shoes and turn them into money for sterilization surgeries, using our shoe store on eBay.”
A significant part of Steven’s work involves educating residents and local officials about what it means to care for an animal. “We ran a 14-week workshop in the schools. It did make a difference,” he says. And above one of the medical clinics in San Felipe is a 40’ x 16’ billboard that reads in Spanish: “Dogs and cats are dying because of our irresponsibility. Please spay and neuter animals.”
When not in fund-raising mode, coordinating volunteers or helping out at the clinic, Steven can be found at the local swap meet where he has a regular dog adoption area. Many of these animals, like one of Steven’s newest rescues, a sweet bright-eyed German shepherd-mix named Vegas, were once so sick and pest-infested that people just didn’t want them in their homes. But now, thanks to Steven’s tireless work, the lives of dogs in this tiny community are very different from how they used to be. “Americans down here tell me, ‘when I first came here it was depressing – the animals were so sick and skinny. That’s just not the case anymore’.”
Monetary donations can be made to ZAPP at bajagoodlifeclub.com/zapp/donate-to-zapp.htm, while donations of new or slightly used shoes may be sent to:
Shoes 4 Spays, 95 East Highway 98, Calexico, CA 92232.