The spike in pet adoptions during the pandemic has been a common theme in coronavirus news coverage, but El Paso photojournalist Briana Sanchez was sure that she’d resist that trend.
She was wrong.
“I went a whole year without getting a dog and at the very tail end of the pandemic, I got a dog,” Sanchez said with a laugh as she tried to avoid the wet tongue trying to lick her face. “I didn’t think I was going to be one of those people.”
The dog she brought home at the one-year mark of the pandemic is a former stray she named Lieutenant Dan, or Lieu for short. His story is fitting for a border community.
Lieu was a street dog from Ciudad Juárez who wandered up the Paso del Norte Bridge in early March. Customs and Border Protection officers stationed at the top of the bridge gave him water and food. Then they called their colleague, Officer Matthew Montana, who is known among his co-workers for rescuing strays.
“A lot of the officers there are kind to animals, and they know that I love to rescue them, they know my sister loves to rescue them,” Montana said. “So they will help me if there’s an animal (on the bridge), they automatically try to get it, put it inside a kennel and hold it there until I myself or my sister can go pick it up.”
Montana, unable to leave his duty at the nearby Stanton Street bridge that night, called his sister, Ruby Montana, a self-described “independent rescuer” of animals in El Paso.
“My brother called and let me know that there was a dog right at the top of the bridge,” Ruby Montana said. “And he was dirty, he looked pretty ragged and hungry. And he didn’t seem to really want to cross back to the Juárez side. Some of the (CBP) officers, thankfully, are very kind. And so they gave him some water. They gave him some food.”
She called a friend, El Paso photographer Justin Hamel, to help her retrieve Lieu. Matthew Montana had already arranged for another CBP officer to meet his sister and Hamel and escort them to the top of the bridge.
“We met one of the CBP agents working at the base of the bridge and she walked us up,” Hamel said. “We had a leash, then we picked up the dog and pet him and everything and then just walked him back down the (bridge) and through Customs. They asked what we were doing, we told them and they all kind of laughed. And then we brought him back to Ruby’s house and we gave him a bath.”
A few days later, Hamel posted Lieu’s photo on Instagram and Sanchez, uncharacteristically, responded right away. “I’m a pretty planned person, you know, so I don’t typically do stuff on impulse,” she said. “But for some reason, I just saw this picture and was just like, ‘I want to meet him.’”
Hamel encouraged Sanchez’s initial interest, reminding her that one of her former co-workers had also adopted a dog from Juárez.
“I was like, ‘Well, you have to keep the tradition going now,’” Hamel said. “I think that kind of hit her heartstrings a little bit and she came over and looked at him.”
Sanchez decided to bring Lieu home for a trial period with her cat, Sergeant Pepper.
“The second he met Sarge, he just got on his stomach and put his head on the ground, his little paws on the ground and just looked at her,” Sanchez said. “He was so gentle and good with her. And so I was like, ‘OK, yeah, I think he’s gonna work.’”
After living on the streets in Juárez, Lieu now has his own “bedroom” in the corner of Sanchez’s home office. He is an energetic dog who greets guests with exuberant leaping and licking. But his adjustment to domesticated life after growing up as a stray was not always smooth. Training has sometimes been challenging, and at first, Lieu had no interest in dog food.
“He would eat table scraps instead,” Sanchez said. “I was telling the vet, ‘He’s not eating.’ They’re like, ‘Well, because he’s been eating tacos and carne asada.’”
Lieu eventually got hungry enough to try the dog food, but then had gastrointestinal problems as he became accustomed to his new diet.
“It was terrible. All of it was just a learning experience,” Sanchez said. “There’s many days where I’m like, ‘Why did I…?’ OK, it’s fine. He needed a good home,” she finished with laughter.
Lieu is only one of about 10 animals from Juárez that the Montana siblings have rescued. They each personally have given homes to two dogs from the bridges. Another rescued dog crossed two international borders and now has a new home in Canada.
“I just hope people can see the transformation when they see these dogs,” Ruby Montana said. “A lot of people just think, ‘Oh, they’re filthy,’ or ‘Oh, he’s dirty, oh, get away, dog.’ But, you know, they’re living, sentient creatures. Once we bathed Lieu and once he felt comfortable, his personality immediately came out. And that’s been the case with all the dogs we’ve rescued.”
“He’s such a sweet dog for being feral or on the streets,” said Hamel, who got to know Lieu while fostering him before Sanchez adopted him. “We take our dogs over to go play with Lieu, they’re still best friends and wrestle all the time. He was very skittish at first. So it’s really great to see him, how he’s grown into being a happy, healthy dog.”
“I’ve gotten used to having two little shadows now,” Sanchez said as both Lieu and Sergeant Pepper followed her around the house on her day off. “I don’t regret it.”
Cover photo: Lieu and his cat “sister,” Sergeant Pepper, sniff at each other at their home on June 7. Their owner, Briana Sanchez, said that she was initially concerned about how Lieu, a stray she adopted from Juárez, would get along with Sergeant Pepper. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)