For millions of American dog lovers, a visit to the local animal shelter can be a heartbreaking experience. So many animals, so few homes.

But that sad feeling doesn't come close to the nightmare Christi Camblor encountered when she entered the gates of a dog "refugio" in Mexico City to offer her services. There she saw 2,000 dogs in a confined space, most running loose and breeding, and many unhealthy, sick and wounded.

There wasn't much she could do, but the young college grad, who had come to Latin America seeking real world experience before applying to veterinary school at UC Davis, took that experience and turned it around.

She and her husband, Moncho Camblor, a graphic artist and animal lover from Mexico City, vowed to create a better model for helping the suffering dogs of Mexico.

Since they established Compassion Without Borders 10 years ago, the nonprofit group, operating on a budget of under $100,000 a year, has saved more than 800 dogs and sterilized more than 6,000 in a permanent clinic they set up in the border city of Juarez. At the same time, Christi Camblor, 37, completed veterinary school at UC Davis and an internship at a Sonoma County animal hospital, and accepted a job as the only staff vet at the Sonoma Humane Society shelter.

She has done outreach in the local Latino community about the importance of spaying and neutering the pets many acquire through backyard breeding. Earlier this year, she launched a series of monthly free wellness and spay/neuter clinics at the Humane Society and at La Luz, a social services and cultural center in the Sonoma Valley.

Camblor said some people were skeptical, saying it sounded nice but that poor Latinos had more pressing needs and probably wouldn't respond. In fact, people are lining up early Sunday mornings with their pets for a free exam, deworming and shots.

Intact animals are referred for sterilization out of a mobile clinic staffed by a vet and vet techs. They can do only 20 surgeries a day and there's currently a backlog of 80 animals to be neutered.

"I have very low hours at work. We don't have the money to support all the kids and our family. There is no money for this," lamented Maria Mendoza, a part-time caregiver who showed up early for a recent Sonoma clinic with a puppy and two cats. She has two more dogs at home.

"We are so lucky to have her. I can't even tell you what a huge impact Christi has had on so many people," said Kiska Icard, executive director of the Sonoma Humane Society.

"One of the things we have been challenged with is how to break into underserved communities. It's not just a matter of translating information. It's a matter of breaking down cultural barriers and maybe some biases."

Camblor dreamed of being a veterinarian as a small girl, a formidable goal for a child growing up in a blue-collar family where no one had gone to college. But she began helping out at a local animal hospital from age 9 through high school and in college worked for a farm animal sanctuary.

One of the goals of Compassion Without Borders is to teach neutering and humane euthanasia south of the border, where so many people are struggling themselves that animal welfare is not a priority. Unfixed animals — diseased, injured and starving — scrounge for scraps on the streets.

Dogs picked up randomly by animal control officers working under a quota are likely to suffer a protracted death by electrocution from a crude contraption that is little more that a set of jumper cables.

What makes Camblor's work emotionally rewarding is the possibility of offering a few of those dogs a happy ending. Four times a year, the Camblors make the 28-hour drive to Juarez with their 3-year-old son, Diego, and come back with lovable "Mexi-mutts," as they call them, many Chihuahua mixes, that have been vaccinated, dewormed, microchipped, sterilized, quarantined and delivered to several welcoming shelters in Northern California.

A new group of 18 dogs arrived at the Humane Society last Sunday ready to be loved. They make great pets, said Camblor, who has four herself.

"They're really smart," she said. "They had to develop their wits about them to survive. But they've also learned how to be really personable so someone gives them their taco. They know how to charm you pretty quickly."

(You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at meg.mcconahey@pressdemocrat.com.)