In March 2018 I went to the Philippines for a vacation… and I returned with a stray dog.
Mena (as we’ve named her) was a stray dog who stole our hearts when she refused to let us leave Bantayan without her, swimming after our boat as we left the island, and then standing on a sandbar crying for us as our boat drove away. We met her on our first day on the island and she stayed by our side until we left, sleeping on the porch of our cabin, and laying at our feet at restaurants, and under our chairs at the beach. She had obviously just had puppies, as she was lactating but the puppies were nowhere to be found. A couple times she whimpered and led us to a spot under a cabin where she dug as if to show us where they might be. But there were no puppies there…
Video of Mena swimming after our boat here
I learned some scary and devastating things about Bantayan while researching Mena’s home island. The dog catcher comes around to get strays (like Mena) and sells them either to the meat market to be turned into meat for human consumption, or places them into cages awaiting euthanasia, often without food, water, or shade. This pound unfortunately does not promote adoption or the welfare of the stray animals it finds. We found a litter of 7 puppies under our cabin on Bantayan – their eyes not even open. What will their fate be? As we travelled around we saw dogs and cats dying on the streets of the Philippines. I’ve been around the world and have never seen worse conditions for dogs and cats as what I witnessed in the Philippines.
I tried to continue on with my trip but couldn’t stop thinking about her and how badly she wanted to leave the island. I couldn’t erase that image from my head of her standing on a sandbar crying and yelping for us as our boat drove away. So I brought her home to Canada. And it wasn’t easy or cheap. But it was the right thing to do. With no viable local adoption option, overcrowded shelters, and the alternatives of death row or the meat market, bringing her home was the only thing I could do.
Everything about this rescue was ridiculous. I attempted to carry on with my vacation, heading south of Cebu city to do some scuba diving. I had been was waiting for the ferry to Bohol for 2.5 hours (Holy Week, earlier ferries were all booked) and when they made the boarding call for my ferry, I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t get on the ferry and continue on with scuba diving and visiting the beautiful sites of the Philippines. The next thing I knew, I was at the bus terminal for the 7 hour journey back to Bantayan to be reunited with Mena. The line to get a bus was much longer than the number of seats on a bus so I ended up sitting on my bag in the back of a van, grateful I had bought a local SIM card so I could spend the 7 hour journey trying to find a place to stay that night in overbooked Easter weekend in Bantayan. Thankfully Kota Beach Resort (where we had met Mena) had one last room available that night but of course the kind souls at the Habitat Sanctuary had already pitched a tent for me in their sanctuary, welcoming a person they had never met before but connected with over a shared passion for street dogs. I opted to stay at Kota as that is the beach Mena was known to hang out at. Greg and Tina from Habitat Sanctuary had located Mena for me earlier that day so I knew she was still around, and within about 30 seconds of arriving at Kota, Mena came running to me, as if I had never left. From there, I devised a plan to bring her back to Canada. And I couldn’t have done it without some of the incredible people I met along the way.
I met some of the most inspiring and amazing people who run small rescues in Bantayan and Cebu. These rescues don’t receive government funding and operate with minimal volunteers and resources. There are not nearly enough rescues to help dogs like Mena who are healthy, as they’re overrun with sick and injured dogs and cats, stretched far beyond capacity. Despite how busy they all are, they took time to sit with me while I cried on the beach with Mena wondering if I was doing the right thing, and met me in a park in Cebu again crying wondering if taking her from her home island was the right thing when we couldn’t find any grass for her to play on in the city. There are no words for the support they provided me as a random tourist on a mission to bring a dog home, but just one of the many selfless acts they perform every day in the name of love for the stray animals of the Philippines.
The Philippines does not make it easy or cheap to export a dog for adoption and most Filipino people do not care for dogs and cats as pets the way Canadians do. The cost to bring Mena home to Canada was approximately $2000, a lot more than I anticipated before committing to this but this sweet girl gave me no choice. She made it clear she wanted to leave Bantayan.
After spending a few more days with Mena on Bantayan making travel, veterinary care and boarding options before she could join me in Canada, it was time to head down to Cebu City where the amazing people at My Travel Companion prepared Mena for travel to Canada. I went to the local office to get her paperwork to travel off the island and was informed she needed a medical certificate from a veterinarian. I offered to pay a little extra to save the quarantine officer another trip to the ferry terminal on the long weekend. He declined my attempt at bribing my way out of going to the veterinarian so Mena and I found a motorcycle to take us into town and see the local vet who specializes in livestock and clearly has little interest in a street dog. We got the certificate, and then the permit to travel. With a harness too large for her body (somebody stole the one I had brought her from the city) and having never been on a leash before, I was terrified to make the 7 hour journey alone with her. But I did it. After a tricycle (tuk tuk), ferry, and taxi we ended up in Cebu City at the veteriarians office to start the process for getting her healthy, vaccinated, and ready to fly. Back at the hotel room I tried to take Mena for a walk. She was terrified of every little sound and we couldn’t find any grassy areas. I made the decision to drop her off early at the home where she would be cared for until she could travel 15 days later.
Less than 24 hours before I was due to fly home, PAL airlines arbitrarily decided to suspend all transporting of animals, leaving Mena stranded in Cebu city as I did not have time to return her to her home on the island before flying home. PAL is the only airline flying direct from the Philippines to Canada and I did not want to try to connect Mena through another country, especially unaccompanied. Through the power of advocacy by a number of people to PAL airlines, Mena was granted an exemption and came home on April 19. One of the most emotionally trying moments of my life… Thank you to everyone for your support and advocacy – I had friends take time out of their days to flood the airline with emails explaining the importance of bringing this girl home. I was also in process of implementing plans B, C, D, etc. including having her picked up and brought to Bantayan, rehomed in Cebu, or certified as an emotional support dog so she could fly in the cabin of a PAL flight (yes… I was seriously willing to do whatever it takes to get that girl home to Canada)
Thankfully PAL made the exception and she was provided A+ treatment by the staff at PAL. I do hope they reconsider their embargo on shipping live animals so others can be given a chance as Mena has been.
We still have more to do for the other dogs of the Philippines.
I’ve had many people offer to help with the funds which is amazing but there is so much need beyond Mena. There are dogs and cats literally dying on the streets. The strays are rampant and spay & neuter programs just aren’t widespread enough. The knowledge just isn’t there as the problem continues to grow exponentially. Mena came home to Canada on April 19, 2018 after a crazy amount of bureaucracy and an emotional rollercoaster, but so many others are left in the Philippines without a chance.
I want to help and I know many of you do as well. Now that I am home, I’d like to do more as the needs are immense and would love your help in setting this up.
A few of the needs are:
1. Ongoing donations for vet bills, animal care and the running of rescue facilities.
2. Volunteers to assist with animal care, maintenance/construction, cleaning, etc. and to give the hard working people who run these rescues 24/7 a break.
3. Assistance providing awareness about spay/neuter clinics and humane treatment of animals, including advocacy with the Philippines government.
4. Website development and internet awareness.
5. Assistance in developing avenues for adoptions to suitable homes. For info on how to adopt a dog from Bantayan Click here
6. Advocacy with Philippine Airlines (PAL) to lift their embargo on shipping live animals, and requesting they develop a low cost option to ship rescue dogs to loving homes in Canada or other countries. PAL is the only airline with direct flights to Canada leaving it as the only real option for dogs wanting to escape the Philippines (other airlines require a stopover, and possible quarantine in other Asian countries). This embargo prevents the international adoption of all the dogs needing homes. I will be submitting a proposal to them in the coming weeks at which point will ask for your support in advocating for this.
Please do not feel obliged to donate any funds or help as there are more than enough important causes at home. That being said, the homeless dogs in Canada are treated far better than the ones in the Philippines which is why I need to do something and have spent my vacation doing this.
There are other ways to help, especially if you are travelling to the Philippines or looking to adopt your own rescue dog (or cat). Please email me if you can volunteer or want to adopt.
If you can help with any of the above, please let me know by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you’d like to send a donation, Canadians can e-transfer to: email@example.com (preferable to avoid the fees of PayPal) and international can use this PayPal link:
If you’re worried about amount, keep in mind most costs are lower here than in Canada. A set of shots and medical check up at the vet is less than $20 CA. Your donation does not have to be large to make a difference.
And remember, adopt, don’t shop. There is absolutely no need to buy puppy mill dogs or backyard breeder mutts when dogs like Mena are dying every day here and at home in Canada.
Here are a couple of the rescues who helped me figure things out for Mena. I suggest following them on FB to learn more or donating to them directly.
Mena update: Approximately 3 weeks after coming home to Canada, Mena became very sick. I came home from work to find that she had been sick all over my bedroom, and in an attempt to get out (she had previously never had a single accident in the house) she had ripped open my walls and scratched up my doors. 4 veterinarians, several expensive emergency clinic bills, 2 rounds of antibiotics, and a surgery later, we found out that Mena had a mastitis in one of her breasts, as well as TVT, a common sexually transmitted infection that causes cancer in dogs. Unfortunately she became ill on a Friday night, meaning she wasn’t able to see my fantastic veterinarian at North Road Animal Hospital. She was given some misdiagnoses and had been recommended for emergency surgery despite fighting an active infection, thankfully I trusted my gut and waited to see my normal veterinarian who assured me we would do the surgery after her mastitis was healed.
All this medical stuff has raised the ethical dilemma of bringing a stray dog back from a foreign country to Canada. Have I unknowingly exposed my other dog to a highly contagious form of cancer? Could the thousands of dollars spent on vet care for Mena been spent on helping other stray dogs at home or in the Philippines? I am constantly wondering if I did the right thing but then I look at Mena and how much she loves life in Canada, and can’t imagine leaving her on Bantayan where she surely would not have survived. There is something very special about this dog and how she chose me…
The prognosis for her cancer was positive. The remaining tumours started to regress after the surgery however at the one month mark post surgery my veterinarian had bad news for me… they hadn’t regressed enough and we would have to start chemotherapy. Although the mastitis had cleared and she is back to her energetic, playful, self, ripping around the dog park chasing other dogs, she still had tumours inside her. I was referred by my vet to the only dog oncologist in the lower mainland – the Boundary Bay Veterinary Specialty Hospital. I had no idea what to expect. The large word “Oncology” on the window had me terrified but this clinic was amongst the best I have ever been to (and we have been through a lot of veterinarians throughout this debacle!) If you want to meet some of the most devoted and amazing dog parents, spend some time in the waiting room of a veterinary oncologist clinic. Each dog we met had their own story and their own loving, devoted pet parent(s). After 4 rounds of chemotherapy, I took Mena back for a checkup to see if the tumours were gone. Bad news… they weren’t. We did another round of chemotherapy and waited a month. On October 3, 2018, nearly 6 months after meeting Mena on a beach in the Philippines, I got the news that she was cancer free. They threw a little party for Mena and gave her a certificate of graduation from treatment.
Now hopefully, we can move on with the freedom of being cancer free, and continue enjoying the life Mena came to Canada for. Although she is still learning to play with toys, likes to run wild and free despite my attempts at keeping her leashed, and is constantly fights with my older 12 year old rescue dog Pierre for the spot of alpha dog, when she is laying in bed on her back waiting for pets, or gently greeting patients waiting to see the psychiatrist or staff at my work, I know she is truly living her best life here in Canada.
Mena has changed me. She is a daily reminder to me of all the other dogs in the Philippines I wasn’t able to save. The ones who die every day on the streets not knowing what it is to be loved. I remain in touch with the incredible humans who run the rescue organizations devoted to these animals. I’d love to say I’d go back and visit again but I’m not sure my heart could handle it. This little blog is my attempt at raising some awareness of the dark side of this country, known for its beautiful beaches.
To watch the video of Mena’s first day home in Canada click here
If you have rescued a street dog you met while traveling and want to be featured on this site, email me with a photo with your story at firstname.lastname@example.org