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San Diegans rally to reunite asylum seeker with lost dog

Women with a dog and signs
A dog named Papi is reunited with his owner, center, in Florida after being separated by immigration officials at Calexico.
(Rancho Coastal Humane Society)

When a young woman fled Cuba to seek political asylum in the United States, she couldn’t bear to leave behind her little dog, Papi.

She took a circuitous route to the United States, heading from Cuba first to Mexico City, then north to Calexico on the U.S. border. The refugee, who prefers using only her first name, Yohama, while her immigration status is in flux, turned herself in to the U.S. Border Patrol and applied for asylum.

While border officials are equipped to take people into custody, dogs are another matter. So Papi, a 15-month-old chihuahua/miniature pinscher mix, was sent to the Imperial County Animal Control shelter on a 30-day hold to allow his owner time to reclaim him after her detention.

That’s where the system went awry. No mention was made of Papi’s whereabouts in Yohama’s immigration documents. So when she got a judge’s approval to be released on bond to await her asylum hearing, Papi was nowhere to be found.

Because of bond restrictions, Yohama was forced to leave for Tampa, Fla., where she had relatives she could live with until her hearing.

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Meanwhile, Papi remained at the Imperial County animal shelter. But the facility could keep him for only 30 days before offering him for adoption.

That’s when the Rancho Coastal Humane Society in Encinitas got involved. It regularly collects unclaimed pets (many of which have been abandoned or wandered across the border) from Imperial Valley shelters and tries to find them homes.

RCHS President Judi Sanzo stepped in. She has spent 30 years as an attorney specializing in federal criminal defense work and hoped her connections could help track down Papi’s owner.

“This was an extraordinary case,” said Sanzo, which was why the Imperial Valley shelter asked for her help. “They felt compelled to hold the dog for the owner but had no owner information.”

Sanzo invested about 20 hours in making calls and trying to track down the missing owner. But a search of the records and talks with U.S. Border Patrol agents yielded no leads.

As Papi’s 30-day hold was about to expire, Sanzo transferred him to RCHS, where he could be held another 30 days before being put up for adoption, to allow more time for the owner to get released from immigration custody.

After delaying as long as possible in the hope that the dog’s owner would contact the shelter, Sanzo finally had to get the little dog ready to list for adoption.

Two days after Papi was posted under a different name on the adoption website, the animal facility got a call. Yohama had contacted the Imperial County shelter and learned her dog had been transferred to Encinitas.

“Her first question was, ‘Did Papi go to a good home,’” Sanzo said, noting that Yohama had given up hope that her dog would still be there.

She couldn’t find him on RCHS’s adoption website. But Papi’s name had been changed, and he was, indeed, still there. Yohama renewed her website search and exclaimed, “That’s him!” Then she burst into tears.

But there was another problem. By now, Yohama was 2,300 miles away in Florida.

Sanzo quickly called a longtime volunteer, Karen Zinser, who had been exercising Papi at the shelter, and asked if she would be willing to fly with the dog to Tampa. Zinser’s response: “When do I leave?”

Sanzo then found a donor to underwrite the trip.

“The reunion was maybe a 40-hour effort, all told, but it was for the right reason, to reunite a woman with a dog who adored her,” Sanzo said. “This is what we do — take a relationship that has been torn apart and we put them back together.”

Zinser and Papi arrived in Tampa to a greeting party of smiling faces holding posters of welcome and love. Papi began barking and jumping in his crate, sliding it across the floor toward his owner.

When Zinser let him out, he dashed to Yohama, jumped up and began licking her face. There was no doubt that she was his mom, Zinser said.

Yohama then handed Zinser a new stuffed dog to take on the flight home so she wouldn’t get lonely.

Yohama still awaits disposition of her asylum request, which could take years, but at least she has Papi and warm feelings about her welcome to the United States.

“My thanks are so immense that I do not know how to express it,” she wrote in a message to Sanzo. She also gave a small contribution to RCHS, apologizing that she couldn’t afford to do more.

“We’ve made friends and created a relationship,” Sanzo said. “It’s a love story.”

Bell writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.


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