From MEMPHIS WOMAN magazine January/February, 2008
After ten days she seems to be fighting a lost cause. Molly Mednikow’s dog, Mo, ran from the Veterinarian’s office and has not been seen since. We climb over a bent cyclone fence behind a house into a field just north of Memorial Park Cemetery. A woman told her the field is popular for dogs so we check. She calls. I whistle. Neither of us have any luck.
Mednikow’s voice cracks as she talks about Mo. Some of it is from emotion and some from hoarseness due to calling out the dog’s name that by this time had been missing for ten days. An insatiable passion for helping animals has saved the lives of countless canines, but you can see the passion is hurting her as she cries out calling for him. It is a passion she has been putting to use since June, 2004 living in the jungles of Peru and opening the first animal rescue center in the area. Mo is one of those rescued dogs and she brought him up to live with her parents and their other dog, Annie. One quickly notices a stick to it ness about her that she is not one to surrender when others sense hopelessness.
Another thing you quickly notice is her appearance does not fit with her life. She looks more like the type who would be living in a condo on the Mississippi rather than a house on the Amazon. She speaks with clear diction and a sense of class that you would expect from someone at a jewelry store showing off a two carat engagement ring to a business executive or an emerald bracelet to a woman from River Oaks. A visit to her childhood home near Yates and Walnut Grove in East Memphis looks like the place where someone like Mednikow would grow up. It is a beautiful Frank Lloyd Wright-ish home that molds into the hilly (by Memphis standards) surroundings. It is certainly a far cry from her current home.
“I am living in poverty by American standards,” Mednikow says. But she is quite happy with her life.
After graduating from St. Mary’s High School in 1986 she went to Atlanta then received her Bachelors degree at the University of Georgia. After graduation it was off to Washington DC. There she worked as a congressional liaison for the National Jewish Coalition (now Republican Jewish Coalition) and later as a campaign specialist for political consultants Eddie Mahe & Associates.
Then it was back to Georgia for her MBA at Georgia State. Mednikow opened the Atlanta version of Mednikow Jewelers which was founded in Memphis by her great uncle in 1891.
But she loved traveling and the forests and waters of the Amazon area of Peru drew her to this hidden part of the world. She first visited Iquitos in 1995, the largest Peruvian Amazon city with a population of about 430,000. It is accessible only by boat and plane due to its remote jungle location so cars are rare. Here a peddle rickshaw is a preferred for of transportation. “It is hard to visualize being in a rickshaw headed down a bumpy street, your teeth chattering as you hold on for dear life!” Mednikow says. The weather is in two seasons – wet and dry- “There is about a 95% of humidity but you get used to it” she says. “Every year I would take my vacation in the Amazon. Soon I began organizing volunteer trips.”
“I have swum in the Amazon,” she says and no, there were no piranha attacks, but she has seen an anaconda and a jaguar in the wild! “I came back on a natural high appreciating all the blessings we have as Americans.” Places she visited like Cabo Lopez – a forty five minute drive from Iquitos during the dry season or a thirty minute boat ride other times- had no indoor plumbing, electricity and clean water. “The poor in the US do not experience the poverty of these people,” she adds.
But they did have dogs. Yes, the people loved their pets but it was different from the way pets were treated in Memphis or Atlanta. Very few were vaccinated. There were no veterinarians so if a pet became sick it was often abandoned. She had grown up around dogs and such a scene was depressing. She also saw the joy pets brought into the lives of children even when they had very little else in terms of possessions. It was frustrating to her to see the sick and malnourished dogs roaming the streets but there were so many, what could one do?
She learned much about the people of the area during her visits. “They are protective of toilet paper. They believe foreigners use too much,” she says. Many people do not have air conditioning because they fear it will cause colds. But they like cold showers and warm showers are hard to find. “They think all gringos are rich and by gringos they mean anyone who is not Peruvian be they white, black, Chinese or whatever,” she says. Petty theft is common and while in the US people think little about things like laying down a ball point pen, there you do not take it for granted because another pen will be hard to find. She sees few Americans there “except for a few retirees smoking cigars at the Yellow Rose of Texas bar while their much younger Peruvian wives are at home,” she says.
One trip changed everything and in June, 2004. She was staying in a hotel in Iquitos when two dogs followed her and slept out in front of her door. She snuck them into her room to sleep inside which was against the rules. That was her turning point. She saw a need to help these stray, hungry and sick dogs so the “trip” turned into something more. “Before I knew it I was renting space for an animal rescue,” she says.
She sold her store and at that time she became “a corporate dropout,” Mednikow says. But she did not turn into a slacker. She founded her group, Amazon Cares, to help the dogs and dog owners of the area. “So much goes into working in a shelter. I am working harder now then I ever have before,” she says. She spent “18-20 hour days,” she says during a recent trip to Memphis getting mailers out for the shelter. Peruvian law forbids people who work at or run charities from being paid so the sale of her store is the source of her personal income and the shelter is funded by contributions and assisted by volunteers from across the globe.
She bought a house in Iquitos and turned it into a veterinary clinic and recruited veterinarians from outside the city. The rescue facility in Cabo Lopez is where she spends most of her time. Electricity comes from a generator to run electronics, but here internet and satellite TV can be unreliable.
Someone in Iquitos gave up on one lost cause, she remembers, but Mednikow and her group did not. “The dog had no fur; it was covered in sores and had long nails. It had been left on the street to die,” she remembers. “After a couple months of love and attention it turned into a beautiful dog now with full white fur,” she says. After that the dog is ready for adoption. There are special needs dogs, too, that are cared for life at the rescue shelter.
Beyond helping animals, the agency is just as beneficial for people in the area. Mednikow remembers a girl in the area born with Down’s Syndrome. Down’s syndrome is an affliction that often leaves the children in the area stigmatized. “People often place the blame with the mother for falling under the spell of a pink dolphin from the Amazon and conceiving a child with the dolphin,” according to Mednikow, who adds there are no schools or services for the children.
But there are pets. When the children picked out the dog, Suzanne, they had no idea the impact it would have of the girl. “Two months after the adoption the family wrote us joyfully. They told us that their daughter’s speech and motor skills had improved dramatically since adopting Suzanne. She was throwing a ball with the dog, had started forming whole sentences and smiled every day!”
She says euthanasia of the dogs is “always depressing but extremely rare.” She focuses on the animals that have been helped and can be helped rather than these cases.
“I am so animated and so passionate about what we do,” Mednikow says. Photos on her website of rescued dogs look like creatures many would be afraid to touch. Most people seeing these animals in the street may look away and say a little prayer that death may come soon and end their suffering. but Mednikow does not give up that easily. The “after” photos show that hopeless case from a few weeks earlier is now ready for adoption.
It is hard for her to say how many dogs her group has helped. “It is still a drop in the bucket,” she says compared the dogs roaming the streets of the South American city. Some are rescued from the streets. Some are spayed and neutered and others had their lives saved from a parvo or distemper vaccine. Last August the volunteers had to head even further south.
An August 15 earthquake hit just off the coast of Peru some 800 miles from Iquitos. Government sources say 519 people were killed and 1844 injured. Amazon Cares came to help the four-legged victims with veterinary assistance.
Amazon Cares takes donations and provides photos of rescued dogs at its website, www.amazoncares.org. $25 will feed a dog in the shelter from 1 to 2 months and $45 is enough to spay or neuter a stray in the city that has many stray dogs roaming the streets.
Her stick to it–ness, has made the shelter successful, saved countless dogs and it can make other things happen, too. After plastering the Poplar/Yates area with lost dog posters, starting a website and even a TV appearance, Mo was found alive and well at Memorial Park Cemetery.
Don’t try to tell Molly Mednikow about lost causes.
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