The VOCAL VETERINARIAN
BY DONNA CRARY
Cristina Maldonado, a veterinarian at Monterey Animal Clinic in Stuart, lives her dream job by caring for dogs and cats and doing everything to keep them healthy. The daughter of Dr. Carlos Maldonado, a well-known general surgeon in Stuart, she remembers wanting to work in animal medicine since she was 4 years old.
“It was something that I got in my head as a little girl and there was never anything else that I wanted to do,” she recalls.
Becoming a veterinarian was a natural fit for Maldonado, with her passion for animals and seeing the powerful impact that they have on their owners.
“I love the human-animal bond,” she says. “I love to see the relationships that people have with their pets. It’s pretty incredible what pets can do for us.”
In August 2018, Maldonado took on an activist role as a veterinarian when an animal health crisis began in Martin County. Within a two-week period, six dog owners who lived near the St. Lucie River woke up to a nightmare. Their pets became deathly ill after coming in contact with cyanobacteria, better known as blue-green algae, which was present in the river.
Early on in the crisis, Maldonado received a phone call from a friend of a friend who owned one of the dogs.
“She said, ‘This just happened to my dog. Can you go over there and find out what’s going on?’ ” she remembers.
Immediately Maldonado went to the Martin County Emergency Clinic, where Finn, her friend’s sick black poodle, was being treated. Within a few hours after exposure to the toxin, the dog began to vomit and develop extreme fatigue. Death came quickly as a result of acute liver failure.
The other five dogs developed the same symptoms. They eventually survived after undergoing extreme supportive care that involved IV fluids and plasma transfusions to repair their livers.
During that intense two-week period, the emergency veterinarians hadn’t determined the cause of their illness. But Maldonado had a hunch.
“I knew in my heart and in my gut that it was the river that was poisoning these dogs,” she explains. “All the signs were there. I just knew.”
Maldonado first became involved with area waters in 2010, when the polluted discharges were being dumped from Lake Okeechobee. She stepped up her activism when her son, Jack, became the first boy to join River Kidz, a children’s group that advocated for local rivers. The group, including Jack, has spoken twice to Congress to raise awareness about the hazardous conditions of the Indian River Lagoon.
After the dogs were poisoned by the blue-green algae in 2018, Maldonado became a media spokesperson getting the word out about what was happening with the animals. She also appeared before the Stuart City Commission informing them about the dangers.
“I felt that as a veterinarian and as a river activist, it became a position that I didn’t ask for. It just felt natural,” she notes. “I got really furious about it because I’ve lived here long enough to have lived through the algae blooms and seen how devastating they are. It was one of those things where it finally climaxed with a dead dog. It was horrible.”
Lab results later showed that all six dogs had been poisoned by the cyanobacteria. Of those that survived, one was a tiny Pomeranian and the others were retrievers that each weighed 60 to 70 pounds — about the same size as a small child.
“It’s kind of extrapolating, because sometimes a child is hard to control, just like a dog,” she explains. “So your kid could run out to the beach, stick his hands in the water and not know that it’s green, because he’s just a kid. To me, if it’s bad enough to kill a dog, then it’s bad enough to kill a child. And therefore, we need to take this more seriously before it is a child.”
When Maldonado isn’t treating animals, she enjoys walks on the beach with her dogs. Several years ago while on one of those walks, she began cleaning the beach, collecting an assortment of plastics and other trash. It became her regular custom. Then one day she found a T-shirt in her collection pile and was inspired to make something with it.
“I looked at it and thought, ‘I’m going to make a little guy out of this trash,’ ” she recalls. “I made a smiley face, gave him two arms and two legs, took a picture of it and put it on Facebook.”
Her friend, Rebecca Fatzinger, saw Maldonado’s post and was inspired to do the same with the beach recyclables she had collected. She took a picture of her creation, tagged Maldonado on Facebook and commented, “I made a friend for your trash man.”
The two friends began creating what they dubbed trash art from the beach junk they collected and it soon evolved into a fun, crazy and creative hobby. They formed TC Trash Art and have displayed their work at select art shows in Fort Lauderdale. They also developed quite a global fan base with almost 2,000 followers on Instagram.
“We have contacts in England, Germany, Thailand, Hawaii and Australia,” she points out.
This past year, Maldonado and Fatzinger took their trash art to a whole new level when they entered a float in Stuart’s annual Christmas parade.
“We built an entire Christmas float,” Maldonado says proudly with a smile. “Every last item on there was beach trash and we won!”
Whether she’s cleaning the local beaches to make a healthier environment, or tirelessly treating animals at the Monterey Animal Clinic, and speaking out to give them a voice — Maldonado remains true to her convictions. And she hopes she inspires everyone to fight to keep Treasure Coast waterways clean and beautiful.
“I think the main thing to do is to educate yourself,” she says. “And then you need to speak up and write letters to all government officials from the bottom up. The more you learn, the more you realize that you need to learn. You have to stay in the know, so that you can share information with others and keep people aware.”
Occupation: Veterinarian at Monterey Animal Clinic in Stuart
Lives in: Stuart
Family: son, Jack, 14
Education: Bachelor’s degree in biology from Boston College; Doctor of Veterinary Medicine from Cornell University
Hobbies: Activism, cleaning the beaches, walking my dog
Who inspires you: “Of people I know, Rebecca Fatzinger, my trash-artist friend, who is the kindest human that you’ll ever meet. Aside from being talented, she loves animals more than me and I didn’t think that was doable. Also, Jacqui Lippisch for what she has done for the area’s environment. She’s an example that women can do anything, and they don’t need to be held back if they believe passionately enough in it. One of my all-time heroes is Jane Goodall for what she has done for animals and the planet. She’s kind and soft spoken, and everything that she accomplishes is done in a gentle way.”