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Left with a choice to board a chicken bus notorious for kidnappings and murder or to pitch and plummet through a ferocious thunderstorm in a small plane, Shayna Whitaker of White Rock, and her business partner Pam Salazar Trujillo of Chimayó, survived the latter.
The peril developed for the “Zoom and Groom” mobile pet grooming salon owners following a week-long charitable mission to Little Corn Island off the coast of Nicaragua.
The pair was about to return to New Mexico after helping spay, neuter and provide health care to a significant portion of the island’s overwhelming animal population when a gas strike sparked a riot that grounded flights off the island.
The women finally arrived home June 26, five days late and worried about their clientele, said Whitaker during an interview Thursday.
“All of our tips during May and money some of our customers donated was used for the trip,” she said. “We want them all to know how much we appreciate their generosity. Los Alamos is really a nice community to give people like me money to do this kind of work.”
The women’s mission began June 13, following an invitation from Whitaker’s mentor, Dr. Tom Parker of Valley Veterinary Clinic in Pojoaque, for whom she worked after veterinary college.
Parker retired last year and has a house in Nicaragua. He was asked to arrange a program to spay and neuter the mostly stray animals wandering Little Corn Island.
There are no cars on the island and electricity is produced by generators. Whitaker, four other volunteer vets and some support staff discovered a community filled with dogs and cats infested with fleas and ticks, she said. Many had parasites and were emaciated.
“The money we received allowed us to bring flea, tick and de-worming medicine, antibiotics and Frontline to rid parasites, especially those that children can catch from animals,” Whitaker said. “We treated nearly 200 dogs and cats that week.”
The veterinarians conducted their work at the island school where the principal was concerned about a lack of compassion children demonstrated for animals.
“It’s a different mentality and she wanted us to teach the children to be kind to the dogs and cats,” Whitaker said. “We took a couple of dogs into the school with us and let the kids listen to their heartbeats and pet them and watch their tails wag to help them understand these animals are living things.”
School was canceled all week while veterinarians performed surgery nearly nonstop, she said. The children got to participate, washing instruments and sitting with animals as they awakened.
“The animals received pain medication and antibiotics,” Whitaker said. “Because it’s a small island and a small community, I believe we did make a difference. I believe the children understand now that dogs and cats need care and kindness.”
At the end of the week, the hotel sent a small boat to transport the veterinarians, their assistants and equipment back to Big Corn Island. While waiting for a way off the larger island, the medical team performed more neutering and spaying.
The group ultimately braved a rickety supply boat bloated with 80 some passengers, including several American tourists.
“We were packed in like sardines, people hanging in hammocks, others sitting on boxes piled around the deck,” Whitaker said. “Some became nauseous.”
Whitaker described meeting a man who turned out to be their salvation. He was known simply as “Adrian,” a Puerto Rican working with the American Army training the Nicaraguan Navy. Adrian called ahead to the Nicaraguan Navy to bring a boat to pick up the 14 Americans who spent more than five hours on the supply boat.
The vessel transported them about 50 miles along the coast to Bluefields, Nicaragua.
“Adrian got us booked into the only American Embassy approved hotel and he took us all to dinner,” Whitaker said.
Whitaker knows more than most about planes and flying conditions because her fiancé, Los Alamos Police Capt. Randy Foster, pilots his own plane. So with much trepidation, she and her group flew off Big Corn Island the following day.
“It was raining so hard and the windsock was blowing crossway to the runway,” she said. “I’m watching the radar screen through an opening to the cockpit and see we’re flying dead into a heavy thunderstorm.”
The other choice was to take a three-hour boat ride followed by a seven to 10 hour chicken-bus ride to Managua. Adrian cautioned against the bus ride citing the kidnapping and murder risk.
“In hindsight, taking that small plane in the storm was a decision I would not take again,” Whitaker said. “I would wait for the weather to clear.”
Whitaker travels extensively on animal care missions in foreign countries, is fully vaccinated and didn’t get sick on the Corn Islands.
“We ate fantastic food the whole time - it was lobster season down there and we ate a lot of that and other delicious fish,” she said.
The first time Whitaker traveled to help animals was with the Student Conservation Association through Americorp when she was a 22-year-old college student. She camped out for six months in New Mexico and Arizona howling for Mexican gray wolves to prove they weren’t there so new wolves could be introduced.
From that adventure, Whitaker traveled to Rancho Nuevo in Mexico to help the endangered Kemps Wridley sea turtles. The beach at Rancho Nuevo was the only place the turtles nested at the time. Whitaker and her colleagues gathered turtle eggs predators would have eaten. They incubated the eggs and released them in the ocean to help rebuild the population.
“I’ve been lucky to meet the right people at the right time,” she said. “I was the vet for the laboratory’s Institute of Animal Care and Use Committee for four years. With Chair Laura Marsh, I made several trips to Ecuador, spending months living in the jungle trying to locate a species of monkey that we think has not been named. The point is, the rain forest is being destroyed and if you can reveal a new species there, then you can attract tourists and show locals they can make money from those tourists instead of from destroying the rain forest.”
Whitaker’s next mission may be to Peru to resume her search for the unnamed monkey.