Nemo, one of the raft puppies Nemo, one of the raft puppies. lynda lock

The castaway who captured our hearts

How one of the raft puppies from Cuba was lost then found again

This is a love story about a helpless little creature who began life with the odds stacked against her, and has not just once but twice defied fate and survived.

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When islanders on Isla Mujeres first became aware of her plight it was as one of the four raft puppies found in November 2016 by a group of island fishermen. The raft was discovered floating miles from land southeast of Isla Mujeres, and the fishermen are convinced the raft originated in Cuba.

When the men noticed the large raft drifting aimlessly on the Caribbean Sea they could see something on board but couldn’t quite make out the shape of it. They decided to investigate as they were concerned there might be unconscious, dehydrated Cuban refugees on board. What they found instead was a scrawny dog.

Pulling their boat alongside they lifted the dog from the raft, and then as almost an afterthought inspected a pile of rags heaped on the makeshift boat. Hiding from the sun’s blistering heat were four badly dehydrated and sunburned puppies — two males and two females.

The men named the bone-thin mother Mama Chica and took the entire family to their fishing co-operative on Isla Mujeres.

One of the fisherman knew Eileen and Doug Regn, caring islanders involved with HALO (Helping Animals Living Overseas), an animal rescue organization. The fisherman gave Mama Chica to Eileen to nurse back to health.

When Eileen saw the condition of the mother she went to the co-op to investigate the health of the puppies. After a lengthy discussion in a mish-mash of English and Spanish the fishermen agreed to give her all the animals.

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Mama Chica and her babies were taken to the HALO-funded Clinica Veterinaria de Isla Mujeres where Dr. Delfino Guevara and soon to be certified veterinarian Rossely Gonzalez gave them extensive checkups. Then it took a number of months to get the little family healthy.

Eileen had to be careful how much medication she gave the fragile creatures. Besides dehydration, starvation, ticks, fleas and sunburned skin they were infested with worms in intestinal colonies so huge the masses looked like baseballs when the dogs expelled the parasites.

As a nod to their seagoing adventure the babies were given “sea names” of Nemo, Sebastian, Dory and Ariel, and when their health improved the babies and their mama were adopted by new families.

Dory went to Washington state, Nemo and Sebastian to Minnesota, Mama Chica went to Cape Cod and the last one, Ariel, now renamed Iza, was scheduled to go to her new home in Denver.

And then life threw the little girl another fast ball, knocking her down yet again.

Her adopting family, Jason and Kelly Cooke plus their two boys, wanted to get to know her a little before she made the transition to her new country, new home and new people. The night before departure they attempted to take her for a walk in the area of Isla 33 condos. She panicked, slipped out of her harness and frantically raced away.

Devastated, the Cooke family searched the neighbourhood, then called Eileen and Doug who joined the search. Heavy-hearted they flew back to Denver the next day, without their newest family member.

In the meantime Eileen went into battle mode. She offered a reward for the dog, plastering advertisements and photos around the island. She posted the information on every Facebook group possible. She investigated over 30 sightings of comparable dogs seen at diverse locations all over the island. All similar in appearance, just not the right dog, not Iza. The family in Denver contacted her frequently asking for news, offering moral support.

As the weeks wore on Eileen persisted in her hunt for the puppy. “It’s an island, for heaven’s sake. She has to be somewhere on Isla Mujeres.”

Then recently late one afternoon, Monica MacPherson happened to be driving to her vacation home at the southern end of the island. She messaged Eileen that she had seen a similar dog near the Aguakan wastewater treatment plant. Eileen waited until dusk and went to investigate.

A brown dog shot past, running flat out then ducking back into the thick undergrowth. Eileen showed her poster to the older man who is the live-in security for a property near the Aguakan plant.

,” he agreed, demonstrating with his fingers that the dog’s ears often stood up tall, like those of a deer.

Eileen nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, yes. Iza,” she said, using her hands to mimic Iza’s large ears. In the past few weeks the man had left the dog a bit of food, so he was certain it was her.

Eileen returned carrying Iza’s dog dish, her favourite foods and a blanket that smelled like her litter mates. Eileen also brought along two of her own dogs that Iza was comfortable with, letting them pee in various areas so the little dog could catch their scent.

One evening she sighted the dog, and called her. The dog stopped, looked back and then ran. Another evening Daniel, an employee at the Aguakan station, managed to snap a couple of photos with his phone. Yes, it was definitely Iza.

Determined that she was going to entice the dog to come to her, Eileen dressed in thick jeans and a long-sleeved shirt as protection against the nighttime invasion of mosquitoes. She wouldn’t use insect repellent, worried that Iza wouldn’t be able to catch her scent.

She rubbed cooked chicken on her hands, and set a food dish beside the gate of Aguakan. In the corner of her eye she noticed a dark shape crawling on its stomach towards the front of the golf cart.

“Iza,” Eileen called softly, and the dog launched herself into Eileen’s arms, crying and whimpering. Iza squirmed and spun ecstatically. It was a struggle for Eileen to hold the dog but she managed to get a lead around Iza’s neck and set off home with the relieved pooch excitedly snuggling in her lap as she drove.

It had been a long six weeks for Eileen and Iza since the pooch had panicked and run, a very long and stressful six weeks. At the house Iza barged into the yard, charging through the gate to greet her housemates, Eileen and Doug’s collection of rescue dogs, all with their own interesting life stories.

Iza is a kisser. She kissed every dog and the two humans many times to express her gratitude and happiness.

You would think that this would be the end of Iza’s story, but there are more and hopefully happier adventures ahead for her. Her adopting family, Jason and Kelly Cooke, are overjoyed that she has been found. It will be a few months before Iza can fly to Denver but her new family is eagerly waiting for her arrival.

And as for Eileen, she says it is heart-wrenching to let any of the rescue dogs go. When she took Iza’s mom, Mama Chica, to the airport their protracted goodbye in the cargo area had all the staff in tears. Mama Chica wrapped her paws around Eileen’s neck, hugging her close.

Eileen said the dog was making a humming sound that jolted her heart with sadness. “I just can’t keep every dog we help. There is a seemingly endless number of pooches who need our assistance and love.”

Eileen’s eyes were bright with tears, her voice thick with emotion. “Iza will be well-loved by her new forever-family. I have to let her go on to her next adventure.”

It’s a true love story.

The writers are Canadians who have been full-time residents of Isla Mujeres for nearly 10 years. You can read their blog here.

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  • Becky Milward

    Beautiful story. What angels you are—HALO, indeed!

  • Patricia Dolan

    Divine!

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