Photo by Andrew Perez

The City of Dogs in Sullivan: A Refuge for Strays

Words by Melissa Cortes Santiago

Edited by Abigail Vela

Editor’s Note: Melissa authored this story as a cohort member of the Pluma Libre: 2023 Trucha Writing Fellowship.

When she was found, Athena, a Labrador-Great Pyreneese mix, was roaming the streets of Edinburg, scared, hungry, and disheveled. Her paws were scraped up, her fur and nails in desperate need of a trim, and her white coat was so dirty it appeared almost blonde.


“Whoever had her just didn’t care,” said Valeria Zamora, Athena’s current owner. “We were trying to contact them, but they didn’t bother to pick up or come to look for her.”


According to Valerie, her friend found Athena and took her to a nearby shelter but was unable to admit her because the shelter was at max capacity. However, Athena was microchipped, so while her owners were contacted, she decided to foster her with help from friends. That’s when Valerie and her partner stepped in, and what was supposed to be a three-week stay turned into a year as Athena slowly became a part of Valerie’s family, which also includes Ash, a cat they had previously adopted. In all that time, Athena’s original owners never stepped up to reclaim her.

A gray cat with green eyes sitting on the edge of the bed and staring off into the distance.
Ash was adopted from an animal shelter after having been there for some time. Valerie describes an instant connection she felt that compelled her to adopt him. Photo courtesy of Valerie Zamora.
After a year, Athena has grown accustomed to her new home, where she is more at peace. Before even the rustling of a plastic bag would startle her. Photo courtesy of Valerie Zamora.

Athena’s story might sound like the plot of a Hollywood tear-jerker, but it is an incredibly common occurrence, especially here in the RGV. According to the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, six million companion animals, dogs and cats, enter shelters in the U.S. every year. In Texas, approximately 600,000 animals enter a shelter every year. Although exact numbers are difficult to estimate, the number of stray animals across the state is significantly higher. Rescues in the Valley estimate that close to one million strays roam our communities, and most aren’t lucky enough to find a home as quickly as Athena.

A Never Ending Problem

The word Yaqui is graffitied in blue letters on a concrete wall. A windmill, along with greenery, stands in the forefront.
Unlike other rescues, Yaqui is located on a ranch, which provides the animals with sufficient room to truly be comfortable. Photo by Andrew Perez.

”We have calls coming in every day. We probably get 10 to 15 calls from people saying that they either found an animal on the street or they can’t keep their animals anymore. So it is nonstop 24 hours a day,” said Alyssa Cerroni, Public Relations Coordinator at Yaqui Animal Rescue. 


Yaqui Animal Rescue is a nonprofit no-kill animal rescue in Sullivan City. According to Cerroni, they have around 300 animals in their care which range from dogs and cats to pigs and ducks. The rescue also coordinates efforts to help stranded animals around the valley find a home. Through a network of volunteers and fosters, which includes members of their staff, they transfer the animals to rescues that have available space both in Texas and across the country. 

Larger animals, such as horses and cows, have the ability to roam freely throughout the rescue. Photo by Andrew Perez.
Dogs at the rescue have access to ample room in their kennels to run around and play. Photo by Andrew Perez.
Cats with Leukemia, like the one above, are kept separate from the rest since it’s a highly contagious disease among them. Photo by Andrew Perez.

Despite the overwhelming support they receive from community members and businesses all across the Valley, securing funding is a never-ending struggle. It takes over $10,000 to operate the shelter every month. That amount is solely earned through donations and fundraisers— none of it comes from the government or local cities. 


“Thank God for our supporters because we wouldn’t be able to survive if it wasn’t for the people who consistently donate and the businesses that support us,” said Cerroni. “But we can’t continue to save stray, neglected, and abandoned animals without proper funding.”

Melissa, ranch manager at Yaqui, grew up on the ranch and has always loved animals. The work she puts into the rescue stems from that. Photo by Andrew Perez.

Doing rescue work is not only financially taxing, it can become emotionally overwhelming as well. With the large influx of stray animals in our communities, the people who run foster services constantly find themselves being stretched too thin. 

“It’s a sad reality. It is very emotionally, physically, and financially draining. Some things lift you up for a second, but you don’t always have time to enjoy that, and it’s right back to the next awfulness,” said Ashli Garza, president and founder of Luv Us Mutts, a nonprofit foster organization in the valley. 

Garza mainly runs the organization by herself, with some help from close friends and family. She helps transport animals out of the state to rescues and shelters that have available room. Garza mentioned that it’s easier for many of these animals to get adopted outside the state, where their stray population is not nearly as high.

A woman holding a poster that reads “Luv Us Mutts”.
Ashli runs a home appraisal business with her family full-time and has still managed to foster for over ten years. Photo courtesy of Ashli Garza.

Room for Solutions

With a problem as colossal as this, how can things ever get better? The first step, according to both Garza and Cerroni, is significant legislation reform at the state level. Although progress was made this past session with the new Texas Licensed Breeders Law, which aims to reform and regulate commercial breeders, it has not been fast enough to curb the number of animals that end up on the streets. Many shelters are advocating for comprehensive spay and neuter laws that ensure both pet owners and shelters neuter and spay the animals they are in charge of, which would help reduce the stray population. 


The next step would be reexamining our local animal control practices. As of July 24, the City of McAllen developed an Animal Care Services division housed under the Health & Code Enforcement Department; the new division is no longer picking up strays around the city. Residents are now being asked to foster or try to contact the animal’s owner before taking them to Palm Valley Animal Society, as per an announcement on the city’s Facebook page. Although the new approach was enacted to help prevent overcrowding at PVAS, some rescues believe it may cause more problems long term. 


“It’s not just problematic for the animals; it’s problematic for the humans because these dogs on the streets are not vaccinated, they can carry disease, and they could have behavioral issues, so it is a problem for the entire community,” said Cerroni. 

A Gratifying Job

Despite what seems to be a never-ending barrage of problems and the incredibly draining nature of their work, the people who do this find strength and comfort in the rewarding aspects of their jobs. 


“The peace I have is the fact that every dog that leaves here is going to know what an amazing life is, and that’s pretty much why I do what I do,” said Garza. With twelve dogs of her own, Garza has been running the foster service for over ten years and has no plans to stop anytime soon.

A dog Cerroni helped foster, who was roaming the streets infested with fleas and ticks, is now living a beautiful life in San Francisco. She recently received a photo of them at the Golden State Bridge. 


“You’ll get this amazing news about what someone has done to save a dog or where our dogs are today, and just to see a dog saved off the street and then living a beautiful life is just an amazing, fulfilling process,” said Cerroni. 


After a couple of baths and a lot of patience, Athena has slowly grown into a more confident dog. She is less startled by random noises and even stands up for herself when other dogs bark at her in the playground. The fear she experienced while roaming the streets has long been forgotten. 


“It makes me proud because I’ve never had a dog like that,” said Valerie. “But I’m glad I did what I did because it just made her better and so much happier. I can see it in her face.” 

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