Mazunte Project 2019: A Veterinary Journey to Create a Better World

As many of you know, Dr. Wissel and I returned to Oaxaca, Mexico this winter to participate in the Mazunte Project and assist Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue with their important mission. 

Dr. Wissel and Abby
Preparing to start our workday

Last year, many folks asked, “What the heck does spaying and neutering dogs have to do with saving sea turtles?” It turns out that dog populations grow exponentially in remote villages that have no access to veterinary care and sterilization services. As the canine population booms, food becomes a scarce resource. Many of these dogs turn to the beaches and dig up sea turtle eggs in order to survive. They also make a meal of the hatchlings as they try to make their way to the sea. With the shores of Oaxaca being nesting grounds for the Olive Ridley sea turtles, and also an important nesting area for the critically endangered leatherback sea turtles, this additional pressure from canine predation makes survival of these species even more difficult.

In response to this problem, Dr. Marcelino Lopez and Dr. Richard Roger formed an international friendship nineteen years ago, and it is their collaboration which brought about the Mazunte Project. Once a year, a team of volunteers from the United States travels to the coast of Oaxaca to spay and neuter dogs in remote villages at no cost to the dog owners. What started as a small group has blossomed into a group of 50 hardworking volunteers, and we even gained a couple Canadians this year! There are veterinarians, veterinary nurses, and support folks that come together to make this mission happen. Veterinary students from Michigan State University’s veterinary school, pre-veterinary students from Becker College located in MA, and 2 recent graduates from UABJO (the Veterinary School in Oaxaca) also participated in the 2019 journey.

My small team: 2 Veterinarians, 6 Veterinarians in training, and 2 Veterinary Nurses

These 50 people were split into 5 teams, and quickly these teams became more like family. Each team drove to a different village each day and set up an entire OR, prep area, and recovery area. Some villages had many patients waiting for care before we had even arrived. In one village however, the announcement system had been out of service, so the villagers didn’t know what day we were coming. It took a couple hours for everyone to get the word out and bring their pets, but luckily we had enough daylight left to treat all the patients that came to us.

Patiently waiting their turn for surgery...

Every day brought different challenges, from patients with venereal tumors to complications of tick borne disease and/or malnutrition and heavy parasite burdens. Everyone on the team worked as efficiently as possible with limited supplies in order to treat as many patients as we could before the sun went down.

Dr. Wissel performing surgery
Dr. Wissel performing her last surgery of the day as the sun sets

In one village they asked us, “Why is it so long until you return again?” The local villagers have come to understand the impact that spaying and neutering has on the quality of life of the dogs. The females don’t have the physical burden of providing for multiple litters of puppies each year, which allows them to keep a bit of meat on their bones despite the limited food available. The males engage in less fighting once they are neutered, and are no longer able to impregnate multiple females throughout the year.

A patient gets a ride home after surgery

In addition to providing surgery, our teams also treated each animal with dewormer to rid them of a heavy intestinal parasite burden. This in turn helps protect the local villagers from exposure to these same parasites. We also treated each dog with flea and tick preventative before they were released back to their waiting owners. The animals in most of these towns were loaded with fleas and ticks, and many were infected with tick borne disease. For example, ehrlichia is transmitted by ticks and causes issues such as anemia and clotting disorders. These symptoms were visible to us in the pale pallor of many of our patients, and the increased amount of tissue hemorrhage associated with the surgical procedures.

By traveling to these villages to provide this service at no cost to the pet owners, and educating the local people about how this action helps protect the sea turtles, we are spreading knowledge that can help change the world. We are making one small dent in the plight of the sea turtles, while also improving the quality of life for these dogs, and their people.

A pup recovering from surgery

The Mazunte Project is just one part of what Dr. Marcelino Lopez does to protect the fragile species of Oaxaca. He operates an inguanario (inguana sanctuary), teaches wildlife medicine at UABJO, is the veterinarian for the Turtle Center in Mazunte, and he founded the Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue organization in 2004. The iguanario is used to keep young and injured iguanas safe from predation and hunters until they are large and healthy enough to fend for themselves in the wild. The turtle center is an educational facility that houses and rehabilitates many species of land and aquatic turtles.

A young green iguana at Dr. Marcelino Lopez's inguanario

Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue has a few dedicated employees that patrol the 22km of Palmarito beach each night. This stretch of beach is the most important nesting ground in the world for the Olive Ridley turtles. Leatherbacks, as well as East Pacific Green sea turtles can also be founding nesting here. The Palmarito patrollers use ATVs to patrol this stretch of beach 3 times each night in search of female turtles coming ashore to lay their eggs. Once the female finishes covering her nest, she returns to the sea. Without the protection of the Palmarito folks, many nests fall victim to predation. Dogs, birds, and poachers are just a few of the predators responsible for the destruction of nests.

Prints left behind around a destroyed sea turtle nest

In order to protect these nests, the Palmarito patrollers skillfully excavate the eggs shortly after they have been laid and carefully transport them back to their headquarters (a tent on the beach), where the eggs are placed in a protected area and buried in the sand at precisely the correct depth. About 6-8 weeks later, the hatchlings begin to emerge from the sand. The patrollers collect them in order to keep them safe from predators until sunset, when they have the greatest chance of reaching the ocean.

In an average season, Palmarito helps approximately 40,000 hatchlings reach the sea safely. The most successful year on record saw about 60,000 hatchlings safely reach the surf. This year however, is a different story.

The two ATVs used for patrol have been in disrepair. They are both 15 years old, and can no longer be repaired. For the past 5-6 months the patrollers have had to try to cover 22km of beach on foot each night. Instead of the usual 400 nests protected by this time, they’ve only been able to protect approximately 100. The impact of the lack of transportation was clearly visible as we walked along the beach this January. Endless craters in the sand with egg shells strewn all around- nests that have been dug up and the eggs eaten or destroyed.

Our efforts with the Mazunte Project are helping- instead of packs of 30-40 dogs roaming the beach, we saw only one pack of 5-6 dogs this year. However, our efforts will be futile if we can’t raise enough funds for a new ATV at Palmarito Beach. It has become evident that this is a necessity for the future of the sea turtles here.

A sea turtle nest destroyed by predators

After a long week of daily travel and hard work in the heat, I was really hoping to be able to take part in releasing some hatchlings with Dr Marcelino. Sadly, it looked as though we would not have that opportunity since not nearly as many nests had been protected this year as in years past, and none of the protected nests had hatched during our stay. I think I was most disappointed for the first time Mazunte Project volunteers. I had been lucky enough to have released hatchlings last year, but these folks had no idea how magical that moment can be. The week of grueling work came to a close, and still no hatchlings. We joined Dr. Marcelino on the beach in nearby Guapinole one evening to see if we could witness an adult female coming ashore to lay her eggs- all we saw was a beautiful starry sky, and countless nests that had been victims of predation.

It’s hard to describe what I felt that night on the beach in Guapinole. The week long adrenaline rush and excitement for the unknown challenges of each day had worn off, the aches settled in, and the sadness of the reality that we couldn’t save the world in one week had me feeling small and defeated. There was still a glimmer of hope in my heart, but it felt distant and small.

We awoke to good news on Saturday- hatchlings had emerged later in the night, and Dr. Marcelino would take us to release them before the final big group dinner of our stay in Mexico. We arrived at the beach, buckets of hatchlings in hand. We had to chase off a large flock of Wook Storks, a couple dogs, and many ibises. The sun began setting, and we set the hatchlings free amid a beautiful pink sky backdrop. The birds returned, trying to pick off our little babes, and we did our best to defend them. Then behind us, a beautiful rainbow all of a sudden appeared. I had to pinch myself as I thought, “is this really happening right now???”

Hatchlings emerging right before my eyes!

“Ted” collecting his thoughts before his first big journey at sea

To add to this incredible moment, several more nests had recently hatched within the sand beneath our feet, and tiny baby turtles began to emerge from the sand. All the exhaustion, defeat, and sadness left my mind, and I instantly felt refueled with hope. I was reminded that our efforts are worth it. We will help this species survive however we can. Our small group of 50 could indeed change the world. It’s quite amazing how you can feel absolutely spent and void of hope one moment, and in a few short moments, hope is restored, and you can’t wait to do it all over again.

Their future is in our hands

Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue does not receive any funding from the Mexican government, so they rely completely on donations to continue their work. We sincerely appreciate any contributions toward our current goal of $6,500, which would allow Dr. Lopez to equip his team with the ATV they desperately need. This will allow them to continue to reach their goal of 40,000 (or more) hatchlings released to the ocean safely each year.


If you're able, tax deductible donations can be made here


If you want to be a part of the positive change in our world, but a monetary donation isn’t in the cards, consider helping in another way…

1. Reduce your plastic use. Eliminate single use plastics in your daily life. Choose products packaged in glass or metal if possible. Glass and metals are infinitely recyclable, plastic is not. Plastic can only be recycled so much, then it becomes waste. This waste is killing our planet, for real. Look around you- it’s everywhere. A shift in how consumers choose products might make large companies start to change the way they package these products- let’s try.

2. Spread awareness. Help us by sharing your new found knowledge about the folks at Palmarito Sea Turtle Rescue, and the folks that make the Mazunte Project happen each year. Don’t be hesitant to turn down a straw, or choose to bring a refillable water bottle instead of buying a single use bottle of water in your day to day travels. Help others understand the importance of your small actions. You might inspire someone else make changes too…


Did you know?

For every 100 eggs laid:

Only 80 will hatch.

Only 40 will make it to the ocean.

Only 20 will make it to adulthood, if human impact is not factored in.

Only 1 will make it to adulthood when human impact is factored in.

(Human impact = beach development, plastic pollution, fishing practices and lost gear, chemical pollution [ie: oil], and poaching.)


Together a small group of people can make big changes. Help us be the change.

Dr. Wissel hard at work in the outdoor OR

This dog and goat are best friends, always together

Prepping a patient for surgery

Kitten got a ride to us on his little boy’s tricycle

Hatchlings emerging from the nest


- Abby, Veterinary Technician and CVH Hospital Manager