SPCA Puerto Vallarta, A Spa or a Shelter?


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“The street dogs and cats in Mexico are the lucky ones; at least they can find food in the trash, and maybe beg from tourists,” says Janice Chatterton, founder/president of the SPCA Puerto Vallarta. “I wanted to find a way to help dogs kept tied up on rooftops where I’ve seen the ropes cut into their necks, malnourished dogs kept in back yards fed barely enough to survive. The animal abuse here can be overwhelming.”

Living in San Francisco, Chatterton enjoyed animals, but when her dog died after she’d already started going back and forth regularly to visit Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, decided it would simply be unfair to get another dog. Chatterton was never involved in animal welfare, or intended to be.

In 2007, by which time Chatterton was living in Puerto Vallarta, she agreed to join some friends to help at the city pound, mostly as a social get-together. She was horrified by conditions at the facility. Chatterton and others developed a program where after the shelter spayed/neutered, dogs, they were taken to public places and events to be adopted.

The program seemed great at the time, but proved a disaster. Dogs were taken for adoption immediately after sterilization surgery without time to recover. Getting sick after adoption proved to be a death sentence when owners couldn’t afford or didn’t care about providing medical care. Worse, the animals who weren’t adopted returned to the shelter to be immediately euthanized. “I realized we were doing more harm than good,” Chatterton says. “I thought someone’s got to do something else; it might as well be me.”

Chatterton opened La Casita, a small private sanctuary in Puerto Vallarta for animals she began to rescue, and hasn’t looked back. She hired staff with her own money, and began to enlist volunteers to help rescue animals, adopting them out to mostly Americans and Canadians, a formula which would ultimately become her model.

Many fundraisers later, Chatterton established and opened the much larger SPCA Puerto Vallarta Sanctuary in January, 2012. Dogs are kept in spacious kennels, and always have the choice of being indoors or outside. They have playtime, and attention nearly 24/7 from a staff of 20 employees supported by a contingent of about 10 volunteers.

There’s one social group of cats, who enjoy a veritable kitty playground, with even a small tree to climb. There’s a veterinarian on-staff (uncommon in Mexico), and Chatterton has sent animals to other cities to see veterinary specialists. There’s even a hydrotherapy pool on site. With  relaxing music piped in via surround sound, the Sanctuary is more spa than shelter.

In Puerto Vallarta, Chatterton has helped establish the concept of ‘voluntourism.’ The Sanctuary welcomes tourists willing to spend a good part of a day volunteering at the facility. Many wind up adopting a new BFF. Chatterton is now expert at the process of transporting animals to the U.S. and Canada.

“If they (tourist volunteers) don’t return home with a pet, that’s fine. They may give money, or just tell their friends about us,” says Nicole Martin, a volunteer from Vancouver Island, BC, Canada, who’s lived in Puerto Vallarta since 1989.

The Sanctuary is no-kill. Once committed to an animal, there’s no wavering (unless the best humane alternative is to euthanize). “I swear, I’ve seen all these animals who I know should have died. Instead, most have not only survived (but) they’ve found homes,” Martin says.

Chatterton has even developed a foster home network of about 35 U.S. and Canadian homes. Once they’ve landing in one of these homes, animals always get adopted. Chatterton rarely adopts to anyone in Puerto Vallarta for many reasons, including the fact that there’s already an over-abundance of animals available to locals from other facilities.

“Janice is incredibly picky about who gets one of her animals,” says Martin. “If you’ve been chosen by Janice, you should be complimented. When it comes to the welfare of animals, she does have blinders on.”

Doing it her way has worked. The Sanctuary has now found homes for over 850 animals. “What’s incredible is the change that she’s made in Puerto Vallarta,” adds Martin. “Of course, the entire culture hasn’t changed here overnight, and there many other positive influences, other groups and many individuals working very hard to demonstrate the value of life. But clearly others see what Janice does.”

Chatterton has been criticized in Mexico; after all, she’s an outsider pushing for change at her pace, and she doesn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. Simultaneously, some animal welfare supporters in the U.S. and Canada are critical because pets there need homes, too “Animals don’t care about geographic boundaries — and love knows no boundaries,” Martin responds. “We need more Americans and Canadians to foster or adopt, and to come visit and enjoy Vallarta, and give a few hours to volunteer.”

Chatterton also operates an elegant boutique hotel in Puerto Vallarta called Hacienda San Angel (a property where Richard Burton once lived). A second hotel is set to open later in the year, called Casa Kimberly (a property once owned by Elizabeth Taylor).

When asked what she does for pleasure, Chatterton has only one answer: “Watching videos and seeing pictures of the animals with their new families that we’ve found homes for; that’s the best.”

See videos and more information at the Sanctuary’s Facebook page.

©Steve Dale PetWorld, LLC; Tribune Content Agency