In the beachfront community of Piñones, a short drive from San Juan, Puerto Rico, a small white dog stood next to a roadside food stand and frantically wagged its tail, as though waiting for someone to return. He appeared to be healthy, but was skittish upon being approached. The dog had just been dumped there that day, the stand owner explained in Spanish.
Abandoned animals roaming Puerto Rico’s beaches are an all-too-common sight, especially after Hurricane Maria devastated the island. “It’s heartbreaking to see how many [strays] there are,” says Nicole DiPaolo, the founder of Paws4Survival, one of the few mainland-based animal welfare groups dedicated to rescuing “satos” (stray dogs) and “gatos” (cats) from Puerto Rico and rehoming them in the States.
DiPaolo founded the Massachusetts-based nonprofit in 2015, following a trip to her husband’s hometown of Arroyo. “There were dogs all over the streets… they had no hair, they were bleeding,” DiPaolo says. Following a trip to the local beach, where she encountered even more dogs, including one that eventually came home with her, she says she found her mission in life. “The minute I met [my dog], I thought, this is what I’m going to do.”
Along with help from other local rescue groups, DiPaolo has made it her mission to travel to Puerto Rico about every six weeks. There, she attempts to retrieve as many stray dogs and cats from Arroyo Beach as possible and flies them to the Northeast.
On a typical rescue day, DiPaolo and a handful of volunteers arrive at Arroyo Beach around 5 a.m., when the largest numbers of strays are out in the open. The team comes equipped with leashes, cages and food. Volunteers take care not to get bitten. On a recent visit in August, DiPaolo says they rescued about 15 strays out of hundreds. “Many are fearful of people,” she says. “Who knows what they’ve experienced.”
Since its inception, Paws4Survival has found new homes for more than 800 cats and dogs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, New York and New Jersey. Cats are typically placed in Paws4Survival’s brick-and-mortar shelter in Holbrook, Massachusetts, or local adoption centers in PetSmart stores, while dogs go into foster homes until permanent families are found.
But it hasn’t been easy. And Hurricane Maria only made an already critical situation even worse.
Before Maria hit the island in September 2017, local animal rescue groups estimate that there were 200,000 dogs and 750,000 cats on the island. Following the storm, the strays population exploded to as many as half a million dogs and a million cats. Large numbers of Puerto Ricans fleeing the island abandoned their pets, swelling the ranks of street animals. And those animals, few of which were spayed or neutered, bred with one another.
Kelly Hunt, a Paws4Survival volunteer who spent four years with Save a Gato, a non-profit dedicated to rescuing cats, notes that many animals abandoned after the hurricane have since had two litters of puppies or kittens, with the first batch now repeating the cycle. “It seems to be snowballing in terms of the numbers and desperate-looking cases,” she says. “But we can’t give up.”
Compounding the crisis is a critical shortage of government-run animal shelters in Puerto Rico. Last December, Newsweek reported that there are only five municipal shelters serving the entire island. (Puerto Rico has 78 municipalities.) Even the estimated 25 or so rescue groups — including Save A Gato, Save a Sato and The Sato Project — can’t keep pace with the emergency.
For a short time, the media highlighted rescue efforts to transport animals to the mainland. But coverage has moved on, while the number of strays continues to grow.
“There are not a lot of shelters on the island, and usually when you go to a shelter, they’re full,” explains Liza Arias, the director of El Faro de los Animales, a nonprofit shelter in the municipality of Humacao, on the island’s east coast. “Long wait lists are common.” (Arias recently partnered with DiPaolo to rehome some of El Faro’s shelter’s animals through Paws4Survival.) And Maria damaged many shelters, including El Faro, which was forced to reduce their already limited capacity. Even though El Faro wasn’t functioning in the immediate aftermath of the storm, Arias says, people would break into it in the middle of the night to leave their dogs, or leave them tied to the gate outside. And without enough space in shelters, many simply drop pets off at a beach or on the side of a highway, or even leave them inside trash cans to die.
Part of El Faro’s mission is to educate locals about the importance of sterilization. Arias attributes part of the problem to a cultural mindset that doesn’t believe in spaying and neutering. Hunt adds, “The culture doesn’t believe in sterilizing because of a machismo mindset.”
Maria also forced many shelters to close for a period of time, suspending spay and neuter programs as a result.
Going forward, DiPaolo says her group has submitted grants to start a spay and neuter program in Puerto Rico. “It’s the only solution,” she says.
Apparently the Puerto Rican government agrees, since the Humane Society launched a new Spayathon initiative this past spring, with the intent of spaying and neutering more than 20,000 dogs and cats in the island’s neediest communities — a small but promising start. The free program will continue until May 2019, after which the Humane Society will donate equipment to local vets so they can continue the work. Going forward, the Spayathon project is also training more Puerto Rican vets to perform high-volume spaying and neutering.
It’s hard to find too many positive outcomes from the hurricane, but Hunt says that it did put a spotlight on the issue of strays, which led to the Spayathon program. So far it seems to be working in remote communities. Arias says about 6,000 animals were seen during the first round of clinics. “I didn’t think people would line up to get their animals spayed or neutered,” she says. “Thankfully I was wrong.”
While DiPaolo awaits grant funding, she continues the task of rescuing strays. In the months following the hurricane, DiPaolo estimates that she’s rehomed at least 200 cats and 125 dogs. Gloria, a 6-year-old white lab/golden mix, is among them. Many of the animals that come into DiPaolo’s care are in dire condition — Gloria had acid thrown in her face. DiPaolo fostered Gloria herself for four months. “She’s the most loving, loyal lab, even though some person basically burnt off the side of her face,” she says.
Gloria recently found a home with a retired nurse in Cape Cod, who sends DiPaolo frequent updates. Yet many more are awaiting permanent families, like Patty, a cute tabby kitten. Initially, Patty was almost euthanized, but the vet that works with Paws4Survival decided to perform a risky surgery to try and save her life. While one of Patty’s legs required amputation, she’s recovering nicely and will be ready for adoption in early November.
Meanwhile, at El Faro, the situation remains dire. This past summer, the heat made it too dangerous to fly cats and dogs in cargo to the States. But that doesn’t stop people from unloading pets. DiPaolo describes a recent visit to the shelter in August. “At least four families dropped animals off,” she says. “One guy came in with a mother and her four puppies. Another couple came with a dog that had a large tumor the size of a basketball.” Paws4Survival is currently attempting to fly 23 kittens up north, making space for 23 new homeless animals at El Faro.
“My dream is to have a shelter down there. And maybe one day go to the beaches in Arroyo and for there not to be dogs,” DiPaolo says. “That’s my biggest hope.”
As for the small white dog? As of last week, he is still in Piñones, waiting for somebody to come get him.
Puerto Rico’s Cats and Dogs Need Help. This Organization is Stepping Up