Baja’s Own Dr. Doolittle

Vet rehabilitates animals while trying to change lax attitudes about pet care
BY: KATE NEAL

It’s been said that the greatness of a nation could be judged by the way its animals are treated, a thought that doesn’t reflect well on Mexico. But while a collective cultural indifference toward animals exists here now, one man is on a mission to do what he can to motivate a change of attitude, and ultimately, of heart.

The Baja Equine Vet in San Jose, owned and run by Dr. Joshua Hyswick Estevez, does whatever possible to give care to any and all animals. Although, first and foremost, the facility is for the care and rehabilitation of horses and other four legged creatures - horses, cows, sheep, etc. - their most unexpected and interesting patients have two legs, or even none at all.

“I don’t think there is any kind of animal I wouldn’t care for,” Dr. Estevez says, having worked with a badger, racoon, armadillo, owl and even a rat. Last year, he rehabilitated and assisted with a surgery on a rooster that was left to die on the side of the road after being run over by a tractor. Several years ago, he cared for a goat, amputating his leg after losing blood flow to his extremities from exposure. And he currently has a fish with a tumor in his charge, giving daily care to shrink the mass.

“It’s important to remember that the quality of life supersedes the length, and that every animal, no matter how short their life span may be, is valuable in nature,” he says, giving an opinion that isn’t necessarily popular in the Mexican way of life.

Several times a month, Dr. Estevez ventures out with his mobile clinic, dragging his trailer all over Baja Sur, from La Paz to Loreto. Typically, he’s called out to ranches to look after a large animal, most often horses or cattle. But all too often, his visits become something of a Doolittle project.

When Dr. Estevez and his mobile clinic arrives, word spreads quickly, and ranchers tell their neighbors from all around to visit with whatever sick animal they might have. Soon, the masses arrive with pets in tow, hoping for a checkup from the man who some refer to as the “Animal Whisperer of the Baja.” Dr. Estevez extends his trips in each town by three to four days to offer care, typically working on a pro bono basis or in exchange for meals and a place to stay. 

“The culture is such that, if ongoing treatment is recommended for an animal, it often won’t be given,” he says. Dr. Estevez stays on to offer continual help to the animals that may be in need. And these extended excursions serve another purpose: education.

“The Mexican lifestyle does not foster the idea that animals are meaningful, but rather that they are dependents,” he says, adding that he has seen many animals left to die simply because they became overly burdensome.

The collective attitude in Mexico, while slowly beginning to shift, is a kind of apathy toward animals, even those considered pets. In the States, pets are treated as members of the family, with things scheduled playdates and doggy daycares, just like we provide for our children. But for many Mexicans, animals are more of a commodity than anything else, used for money if possible and, unfortunately, very often expendable. Domestic animals are not protected by the law in Mexico, and behaviors might be considered animal abuse in the U.S. could be considered normal here. It wasn’t until very recently that one could even obtain non profit tax status for an animal related charity.

While the laws in Mexico do not protect domestic animals, those related to livestock of ranchers are in place and are actively and vigorously enforced; although, they are intended to protect the owners themselves rather than the animals. The law does not determine whether or not the extent of care (or lack thereof) is abuse. It is within the rancher’s right to care for the animals as they wish, since “it” is lawfully their property. (By the way, if you hit a cow on the highway, the rancher who owns it is financially responsible you’re the damage to your car, but good luck with enforcing that. You should get the brand off the beast and take it to the police station for your best shot at getting compensation.)

These laws aren’t changing (not yet, anyway), but Estevan’s clinics are doing their part to alter the attitude of the people in Baja. He aims to reach the kids of the ranchers, those who are not yet inundated with the cultural attitude and are more susceptible to a positive message about the value of life - all life.

“It’s important to teach the people that these are living creatures who feel pain just like we do, and they have value just like us,” he says. “They are more than just things.” ,