The Mazunte Project is a collaboration between veterinarians, students, and volunteers across the United States who come together each January to perform sterilization surgeries in rural and underserved Mexican communities along the Pacific Coast. Our mission is to protect the endangered sea turtle by controlling the dog population that consume the turtle eggs and hatchlings along several of the most important nesting beaches in the world. Our efforts have effectively controlled the packs of dogs that previously dominated the beaches, saving the lives of thousands of endangered sea turtles, and positively impacting the of health of these communities.

The Mazunte Project was founded in 2001 by Richard Rodger, DVM, small animal practitioner from North Grafton, Massachusetts and Marcelino Reyes, DVM, practitioner at the Centro Mexicano de la Tortuga (Mexico Turtle Center) in Mazunte in Oaxaca, Mexico.

For many years, the local people of the Oaxaca region harvested sea turtles and the eggs for food and export. Due to the increasing risk of sea turtle extinction, the Mexican Government banned the harvesting of turtles and eggs in 1991. In 1994, the Turtle Center was established in order to provide education, protection, and research for the local sea turtle population.

Education on-location is also a key component of the Mazunte Project.

The Turtle Center offers a viewing aquarium, rehabilitation, and research facilities. During nesting season, the turtles travel to the beach during the night for two-to-three evenings after a full moon. The turtles dig holes in order to deposit the eggs until it is time for them to hatch. Once hatching begins, thousands of baby turtles migrate into the ocean.

The two biggest risks to the sea turtle eggs within the Oaxaca region are 1) poachers and 2) the feral dog population. With the help of volunteers and tourists, the Turtle Center incubates the eggs until they are ready to hatch and then release the turtles into the ocean. In addition, Dr. Reyes conducts a camp in which his group harvests the turtle eggs from populated Pacific Coast beaches of Oaxaca City. Once the eggs hatch, the turtles are released at the Palmarito Turtle Camp.

In collaboration with the efforts of the Turtle Center, Dr. Richard Rodger formed a team of veterinarians, technicians, and DVM students to provide sterilization procedures for the local dog population.

Turtle Release 2
Participants release baby turtles on the beach.

Over the years, the team has grown to include various academic institutions and veterinary practices from the United States. This expansion has allowed for the number of sterilization procedures to increase from 30 to 325. These efforts have also resulted in an increase in the number of nesting turtles on the local beaches. More is still needed in remote locations and therefore more participants are always welcome.

This program was possible due to one of our distinguished alumni, Pierre DePorre, DVM. Dr. DePorre is a long-standing team member of the Mazunte Project and now provides an opportunity for our students to not only learn basic clinical skills, but also develop a global perspective on issues affecting communities around the world.

Participation Criteria

While MSU has been sending students to Mazunte for externships for more than a decade, it became an official study abroad program in 2022. Students selected for the Mazunte externship will join a mobile surgical team of roughly 3-6 people, each day traveling from Mazunte to a different Mexican village. They will perform spay and neuter surgeries on dogs and cats, while also supporting the entire team in delivering anesthesia, recovering pets, cleaning, and educating clients. Facilities at the villages are rustic, conditions can be challenging, and the work is hard, but the experience is rewarding and we always make to time for fun! Last year, each student averaged 35 surgeries over the course of the externship, with our entire group performing over 500 spays and neuters.

Because of the complex logistics involved in this project and our commitment to providing excellent surgical instruction, we are limited in the number of students that can participate each year. Candidates will be evaluated based on the following criteria:

  • Primary surgical and anesthesia experience (such as RAVS trips, c-Snip rotation, MSU Primary Care rotation, MSU anesthesia rotation, barn cat spay/neuter days, etc.)
  • Demonstrated interest/career goals in shelter medicine, public health, small animal surgery, conservation medicine, or small animal general practice
  • Spanish language skills
  • International experience
  • Ability to work collaboratively in a team
  • Willingness to work outdoors in temperatures of 80-90 degrees and operative in a primitive/rustic setting without running water or flushing toilets

Additional information: Open to third- and fourth-year students MSU College of Veterinary Medicine. Student interviews will be conducted once the pool of students have been identified.

Turtles of the Oaxacan Coast
  • English




  • green turtle
    tortuga verde ó blanca
    Chelonia mydas
    sea turtle, 3 to 4 feet long, weighing 100 to 200 pounds, vegetarian. Although an endangered species, they are found in relatively large numbers.
  • hawksbill
    tortuga carey
    Eretmochelys imbricata
    sea turtle, 3 to 4 feet long, weighing 30 to 100 pounds, usually brown with shingle-like overlapping scales, omnivorous.
  • leatherback
    tortuga laud, de altura, machincuepo
    Dermochelys coriacea
    sea turtle, 7 to 8 feet long, weighing almost a ton, world's largest turtle. The shell is smooth with several lengthwise ridges. Rarely seen.
  • olive ridley
    Lepidochelys olivacea
    the smallest and most abundant of the sea turtles, 2 to 2.5 feet long. In the reproductive season they arrive in large numbers for nesting; this event is called arribadas.
  • source: tomzap.com/turtle.html