LISBON FALLS — It started with a handful of food: a simple gesture by a young dog-lover a long way from her Maine home.
It was a way for the college junior studying in Mexico to fill the void of leaving behind her own dog to travel to a foreign land for a semester.
But what started as nothing more than the handfuls of food fed to stray dogs on her way to and from class in Oaxaca, Mexico, grew into passion for Sierra Guay. And for the one dog she thought she'd never really reach, it became a life-changing journey from Mexico to Maine via car rides, a border crossing and a plane ride into Portland Jetport on Monday.
"I saw Nallel (pronounced N-eye-L) and she would sleep in the same area every night," said Guay, 21, of Lisbon Falls. "The first time I fed her, I had to just put the food down and walk away. I continued to feed her. I was walking to class one day and felt something on my heel. She was following me to class."
Hailing from a large family of dog-lovers and rescuers — her mother, Julie, has seven dogs of her own — Guay, a University of Vermont student, naturally recognized a problem and sprang into action. She was shocked and saddened by the number of stray dogs roaming the streets of the Mexican city with a population of 20,000. She then researched the issue for her semester project.
Soon Guay discovered she wasn't alone in her attempts to care for the stray dogs during her months in Mexico. An entire network of people struggle daily to feed, spay and neuter, rescue and find homes for as many of the street dogs as possible. Along her own journey, Guay discovered regular folks, like herself, who did everything from feeding the dogs to trapping them and paying for them to get their shots and get fixed. She met veterinarians and rescue workers who made it their life-mission to get the dogs off the streets and into homes — even homes across the border in the United States.
During this time, Guay fell in love with the small, street-smart dog who kept following her to class and decided on a mission of her own back in January. Nallel — whose name means "I love you" in Zapotec, an indigenous language spoken in rural Mexico — was coming home with her to Maine. Period.
Months later, the small, mixed-breed mutt followed Guay 3,400 miles to her home in Maine.
"It was very surreal. It's been so seemingly impossible to get her here," Guay said. "But with the help of so many selfless people, she finally got here."
Often fearful the journey might not happen as she encountered hurdle after hurdle trying to arrange transporting Nallel to the United States, Guay said she almost gave up.
That's when a mother's touch came into play from thousands of miles away.
"When they told me there was a woman in Texas who wanted to adopt her, I was like 'Whoa! If that dog can get to Texas, then we can get her to Maine," Julie Guay said.
Thus began the long exchange of emails, phone calls and arranged pick-ups and drop-offs between Mexican cities that led Nallel from Oaxaca, Mexico, to San Miguel, Mexico, to Guay's niece in San Antonio, Texas, to Maine. Julie Guay said the confusion and headache was definitely worth it in the end — especially when she saw Nallel emerge from her kennel and into her daughter's arms at the airport.
In the end, Sierra Guay said that people along the way were extremely generous in helping her bring her dog home — from the Good Samaritan who helped cover vet bills in Mexico to the staff at Maegan House Rescue in Oaxaca who helped arrange the journey to her cousin in Texas who picked up Nallel and got her on the plane bound for Maine. Throughout it all, the biggest expense was the plane ticket home.
"Until we saw her in Portland, I still wasn't positive she was going to get here," Julie Guay said Monday night, looking on as Nallel explored her new home while keeping a close watch over her daughter. "If you can rescue one, then that's one more life that can be saved. I know that doesn't mean much to some people, but it means the world to me."