A small (but mighty) team of staff and volunteers made our second site visit as DPFF this week to partner organization Watermelon Mountain Ranch (WMR) just outside of Albuquerque. The DePonte family has a long history of supporting WMR, but this was the first time Gaelan, Bill and two of our volunteers visited New Mexico’s largest no-kill animal shelter, a pet rescue and advocacy organization that saves and finds homes for thousands of cats and dogs each year. We want to use this post to paint a picture of this animal oasis in the high desert and share some of the things we learned on this visit. Because, quite frankly, we were blown away. Not only by the facilities — which were unlike any shelter facilities we had ever seen — but by the dedication, knowledge and compassion of WMR’s staff and volunteers.
Of course, we do a lot of research to prepare for a site visit: giving their website a deep-dive, looking up recent news on the organization, checking out financial reporting, sending in secret agent ninja cats to collect intel (just kidding…) We were quite excited about what we learned in that research phase (like the fact that more than 150,000 animals have been adopted out by WMR since their inception in 1996!) But nothing quite prepared us for the level of warmth and energy that we encountered from the moment we pulled up to WMR’s 10-acre main facility in Rio Rancho.
Touring the Facilities
Our kind and gracious host for the visit was WMR’s executive director, Sara Heffern. Sara has been with the ranch for eight and a half years, and she knows the place, and the pets, like the back of her hand (she knew every animal’s name, age, history, demeanor, diet, favorite activities — it was truly impressive!) She introduced us to Sophia DiClemente, who founded the organization with her late husband, Lee, before taking us on a tour of their extraordinary facilities. Immediately we could see, (and smell) how meticulously clean they keep things. What is really unique about WMR is that the animals have a lot of space to feel at home in, with access to the outdoors for much of the day (a concept Sara tells us they modeled after Best Friends Animal Society in Kanab Utah).
The dogs have their own fenced in spaces (paired up, if that fits their personalities), equipped with beds, shade coverings, toys, astroturf, water, and kiddie pools. Weather permitting, these lucky pups spend a good portion of the day outside (though never for more than 8 hours total, and once the temperature hits 90 degrees, outside hours are split between early morning and evening), and the atmosphere has been carefully curated to give them a sense of normalcy and home.
There is a separate area for sanctuary dogs, those deemed dangerous under New Mexico’s “Angel's Law.” These dogs are legally required to be euthanized unless they can find a sanctuary that can house them separate from other dogs for the duration of their lives. According to Sara, pit bull breeds and chihuahuas are the most commonly euthanized and also the most over-bred in New Mexico, so many of the dogs in sanctuary at this time are pit bulls. These dogs were originally bred as “nanny dogs,” as they are inherently gentle. But they can also be territorial, and most often a single incident of aggression as an act of protecting their humans can result in a dog being labeled as dangerous. Without a place like WMR, “dedicated to rescuing animals from death row,” as Sara put it, the dogs they are housing in sanctuary would have been put down.
Finally, there is an area called “Lee’s Retirement Village,” which was a dream of late founder Lee DiClemente before he passed away in 2010. He wanted a space for senior, long-term dogs with chronic illness to live out the rest of their days in comfort. They have their own little bungalows, with large outdoor areas and kiddie pools to swim in. Some of these dogs are eligible for adoption, but realistically, most will spend their remaining years with WMR. Sara and her team make it a priority to see that they are happy and well loved.
The feline community enjoys the luxury of WMR’s "cateries" — think cabins for cats, complete with enclosed porches for those wishing to sun, and temperature controlled inside spaces with climbing platforms, toys and scratch posts. The cats are separated to accommodate their preferences, whether they enjoy being around many other cats, just a few or none at all. There is even a separate catery for those who have active cases of FIP, a parasite that infects all cats but flare up and cause serious medical issues for those with weakened immune systems. At that point, it could infect other cats as well.
WMR has a spay and neuter clinic at the main facility, used internally and also open once a week for people in the community to bring their animals. (They are in the process of launching their own low income program to provide spay and neuter services at discounted rates.) Sara said they are hoping to hire an additional veterinarian and vet tech so they can offer more clinic days a week, and also have the ability to treat more complicated medical cases in-house. Medical bills, Sara tells us, is one of WMR’s biggest expenses. “Once an animal is in our care, we are dedicated to taking care of their medical issues, no matter the cost,” she said.
Intakes And Adoptions
Like we heard from Connie at Tamaya Horse Rehab, it’s common for animals to be abandoned outside of the main facility, tied up or left in crates outside of their gate. But the majority of animals come to them from municipal shelters in New Mexico as well as Mexico. “Municipal shelters get a bad rap,” Sara told us, adding, “but the reality is that the people that work there, they really care. They care for these animals and give them a fighting chance while they wait for us to have a space open up.” Sara explained that WMR is in constant contact with municipal shelters, keeping track of the animals that are slated to be euthanized and those who have been turned over to animal control due to lack of space. WMR lets them know immediately when they have space available and follows up daily to fill those spaces with new rescues.
“We haven’t had to turn down a single life-saving transport,” she said, crediting in large part their extensive foster team. According to Sara, around 150 people are in WMR’s Foster Team group on Facebook, and thirty to forty of those people are very actively fostering animals. Many take multiple animals at a time, including what Sara calls the hardest job: hospice fosters for older dogs who are no longer adoptable due to critical health issues. “We wouldn’t be able to take in the volume of animals that we do without our foster team,” she said, adding “They are miracle workers.”
Perhaps the most important piece of the puzzle for WMR is their adoption efforts. According to Sara, WMR takes in nearly two thousand animals a year, but they put out just as many for adoption. More than 150,00 animals have been adopted to date, with only a 3% return rate. Sara credits this to their thorough adoption screening process, which includes a two-part application, meet and greets (with the family and other pets in the household), trial adoption runs for older dogs (especially long-term WMR dogs) and an adoption contract that states the adopter will take responsibility for the animal for the duration of its life. The contract stipulates that if an adopter is unable to care for a pet adopted from WMR, they are prohibited from taking the animal to any other shelter or selling the animal. “Once a Watermelon pet, always a Watermelon pet,” Sara told us, adding that they will waive surrender fees and make space for any Watermelon animal that needs to come home.
WMR’s adoption fees are higher than municipal shelter fees, which Sara says provides an extra layer of screening before adoption. “The fees don’t completely cover the cost we paid for the animal being here, and medical costs, but it shows us the person is willing to invest in the animal. We would never do adoptions for $10 or $20, because there’s no incentive for the owner to take responsibility for the animal,” Sara said.
Despite challenges from Covid, WMR is still hosting multiple off-site adoption events each month. In fact, there were three events the weekend of our visit. “I love getting out in the public, getting to talk with people and get these babies placed,” Sara told us. (For upcoming adoption events, check out their website: https://www.wmranch.org/events).
Aside from housing and feeding thousands of animals a year, WMR has some pretty cool projects in the pipeline. The Four Paws Chapel and Memorial Garden, an outdoor venue where people can scatter their pets’ ashes and pray or meditate for their dearly departed furry friends, is the next big dream of founder Sophia DiClemente. Her vision is that it could also be rented out for events as a new revenue source. Sara also showed us the National Disaster Animal Rescue and Recovery truck rig on the property, which they used to drive down to Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina to rescue animals without houses after the tragic storm. It would take a bit of work, Sara told us, but they want to do some repairs to the rig so they can begin doing disaster rescue missions across the country.
“We’re not getting stipends from the government like municipal shelters, Sara told us, adding that most of WMR’s funding comes from grants, donations and estate donations. Monetary donations are always welcome, and they make it very easy to do so through their website. (Charity Navigator gives WMR a rating of 94/100, citing that over 72% of monetary donations go directly toward program expenses.) For those wanting to contribute in other ways, WMR accepts donations at their two resale shops; they accept in-kind donations (listed on their website); they have rewards partnerships with Smith’s grocery store and Amazon Smile; and they are always accepting volunteers — it is a tough but rewarding job in a loving environment.
Get In Touch
Are you as impressed by Watermelon Mountain Ranch as we are? We hope so! Reach out to WMR for your adoption needs, or just to thank them for the fantastic work they are doing for cats and dogs in New Mexico and beyond!