Gwen Wolf (left) at an animal clinic in Antigua, Guatemala. Wolf, who lives in Scarborough, has created a GoFundMe page to help rescued dogs and cats in Central America: Guatemalan Animal Sterilization Clinic 2020. “My goal while I’m here in Maine is to raise enough money to sponsor two clinics in 2020,” she said. Courtesy PHOTO/Gwen Wolf

SCARBOROUGH — A Scarborough High School graduate, Gwen Wolf, is working with a Guatemalan animal rescue organization to save and protect overlooked strays in Central America.

Wolf, who graduated from the University of Southern Maine in December of 2019, said that she had taken a gap year between high school and college to volunteer in Central America, where she found the nonprofit animal welfare organization Guatemala United for Animals.

Since then, she said she has traveled back to Antigua, Guatemala, five times, the last of which was in December, and plans to continue her work with the organization.

“I know that I’ll always go back to this rescue while it exists,” said Wolf.

Guatemala United for Animals primarily focuses on spaying and neutering, according to the program’s website, and offers free sterilization clinics. The organization’s limited-space shelter also rehabilitates animals before sending them to loving homes.

“Organizations like ours invest a lot of time training new volunteers, so having Gwen return so many times has been extremely helpful,” said Keri Peyton, the organization’s treasurer. “On her most recent visit to Guatemala in December 2019, she filled in for a staff member while they were on vacation. She also volunteered at our December spay and neuter clinic, taking care of the animals post-op recovery. She has become an integral part of our team while she is here. She’s a natural with animals and helps us enrich their lives while they are at the shelter and prepare them for adoption. Her love for our animals shines through, and I can see the feeling is mutual.”

While in Maine, she said that she hopes to raise awareness about GUA’s work and mission, and she hopes to sponsor two clinics.

Spaying even one dog can save thousands of lives, said Wolf. One female dog and its offspring can create 67,000 puppies in six years.

A big problem with an overpopulation of strays, especially in Antigua, is that the animals are treated like pests by the locals, said Wolf.

“Almost every dog that we take in has their own personal horror story from hell,” she said in an email. “Broken paws and backs from beatings, chopped off tails, entire lives chained up alone to a fence, hit by buses, tied into plastic bags and thrown out the car windows, starved, sick, scared, etc. This is the world that so many innocent animals are unnecessarily born into. This is their reality and it’s a nightmare.”

Even with the impossible and torturous life Wolf said strays can have, education is spreading and there is hope. She’s seen some healthy dogs roaming the streets, and many hotels or businesses now offer water bowls.

While residents in Antigua and surrounding Guatemalan villages are beginning to learn and care about these animals, she said, there is still a long way to go.

“(The residents are) such kind-hearted people,” she said. “You’ll meet someone off the street, and they’ll invite you in for a cup of tea. If you’re at a restaurant and you don’t have enough money, (a stranger) will pay. But at the same time, when there are dogs lying around, they don’t really register it. There’s an oblivious ignorance or lack of care, which I guess can be a privileged thing. Their main focus isn’t on animal care … Kids beat dogs because they see their parents do it.”

Scarborough resident Gwen Wolf in Antigua, Guatemala, assisting an animal shelter for rehabilitated strays that are waiting to find new homes. Courtesy Gwen Wolf

GUA has inspired Wolf to rescue dogs and cats on her own time. During her final days in Guatemala, she found a home for two kittens without assistance.

“So this junkie had these two tiny babies,” she said. “He was holding them by the throat. I paid this guy, like, $3 and called my boss and she said that she didn’t have any room. I had virtually nothing. I was leaving the country in three days. I spent the next three days searching high and low, and by the end I was successful and found two good homes.”

She said that before working at the clinic she “would have been too scared” to help. “I wouldn’t have had the confidence,” she added.

Travelling to a new country has also taught Wolf more about what she wants to do in the future, she said.

“I want people to know about the work we do and why it’s important,” she said. “There are so many animal-lovers here in Maine and there are so many animals that need help in Guatemala. My goal is to connect them together. My goal while I’m here in Maine is to raise enough money to sponsor two clinics in 2020.”

Wolf said that she’s set up a GoFundMe page to help support her goal, called the Guatemalan Animal Sterilization Clinic 2020.

The animals she has helped rehabilitate keep her from being discouraged during challenging situations, said Wolf.

“I think I’ve learned how gratifying it is,” she said. “I’ve always been passionate about animals, but I’ve learned about rescue work. Sometimes you’ll rescue an animal and it’s going great, but then they’ll still die. It’s not your fault, but it feels like it is. That aspect is hard, but at the same time the highlights are bringing in an animal and having them be super scared and dirty and hungry and then watching that transformation of them becoming happy and meeting their family. So that part is really cool.”

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