Copyright © 2022 Albuquerque Journal
Maggie May loved the hands-on aspect of her “job.”
The 12-year-old yellow Labrador retriever was the first member of the Sunport K-9 Ambassador Program, started in 2015 by her human partner, Dr. Victor Strasburger, a distinguished professor emeritus of pediatrics at the University of New Mexico.
Prior to her retirement near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 40,000, often harried travelers, had seen Maggie May’s sweet face and bright “pet me” vest, and took a moment to do just that – give her a few pats and a kind word. Among those travelers were Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, actor Seth Rogen, members of the “Breaking Bad” TV series and former U.S. Women’s Open golf champion Dottie Pepper, said Strasburger.
The good-natured dog recently came within a whisker of losing her life after eating tainted peanut butter that is part of a recall.
“My neighbor was taking care of her while I was out of town, and was giving Maggie May a pill for her arthritis hidden in peanut butter,” Strasburger said.
The next day, the dog became critically ill, with symptoms including vomiting, bloody diarrhea and a seizure. She wound up in veterinary intensive care for five days, and Strasburger wound up with bills that he expects to finally tally between $8,000 and $10,000.
The Jif brand peanut butter she had eaten was apparently contaminated with salmonella bacteria, and the lot number on the label has been linked to the current recall of the product. It was not clear how many jars are part of the current recall.
At least 14 people in 12 states became ill after consuming the product, including two who were hospitalized, according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. An online search did not reveal any other reports of animals becoming sick.
Strasburger said he is hopeful Jif’s parent company, J.M. Smucker, will reimburse him the cost of veterinary care.
Maggie May is now recovered, and Strasburger recently adopted another therapy dog, Marshall, a 5-year-old German shepherd and husky mix, who will wear the yellow vest at the airport.
“He’s very smart,” Strasburger said, “at least smart enough to know to always defer to Maggie May.”
Maggie May was 6 months old when someone dropped her off at the office of Strasburger’s then veterinarian to be euthanized because she had mobility problems and needed extensive surgery on her two knees. The vet’s staff became so attached to the animal that the doctor performed the surgery at no cost and two months later offered Maggie May to Strasburger, whose dog had just died.
Marshall came to Strasburger in a similar indirect way. Picked up as a stray in Valencia County, the dog wound up at a shelter that lacks a no-kill policy. He was subsequently liberated by the nonprofit Viva! NM Rural Animal Rescue organization, where Strasburger, who had been looking around for another Ambassador dog, learned about and adopted him.
Although Strasburger is credited with founding the K-9 Ambassador Program at the Sunport, the idea did not originate with him.
“I give talks all over the country about the effects of media on children and adolescents, and was traveling through airports in Los Angeles and Albany, New York, and encountered therapy dogs there,” he said. “I was so impressed by these fabulous, friendly dogs who love to be petted that when I came back I called the head of public relations at the Sunport and asked if they’d be interested.”
The K-9 Ambassador Program grew out of that inquiry and there are currently 22 teams of therapy dogs and handlers involved. The program also uses the expertise of Santa Fe-based Assistance Dogs of the West, which raises and trains therapy and service dogs, and Albuquerque-based Warm Hearts Network, which teaches people about therapy dogs and helps to screen and place dog and handler teams in various community settings.
“These dogs are miracle workers,” Strasburger said. “I’ve never met anybody at the airport who said they had more stress after petting a therapy dog. The dogs take a traveler’s mind off the stress of flying – and riding in coach.”