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Saving the strays of Puerto Rico

A major initiative promises to make the island a better place for animals

From Animal Sheltering magazine September/October 2015

Demi (nicknamed for her demodex mange) and her sister got tender care at Osmar Rivera’s clinic.Local groups and kind individuals do what they can to keep strays fed, but with cars whipping by and no medical care, the dogs have a hazardous life.At a Humane Society International spay/neuter clinic in Toa Alta, volunteer Geesa Marzan helps a man check in his dog for surgery.A worried pet owner kisses her dachshunds before they get spayed.Carmen Cintrón shows Tara Loller of The HSUS around her sanctuary for dogs.Dogs at the Santuario de Canita get a close-up tour of Tara Loller.

The roadside stop near Bahía de Puerca is like dozens of others in Puerto Rico—a cluster of ceiba trees, a patch of gravel leading to an exquisite stretch of blue water.

And, as with those other overgrown roadside areas around the island, what initially seems to be just dirt and trash and foliage turns out to be occupied.

A lone dog, hairless from mange and pink from the sun, slinks from the bushes, giving the humans a wide berth. Call as they will, he won’t be lured back.

As they step into the shade of the trees, Tara Loller of The HSUS and veterinarian Osmar Rivera cast their eyes around, taking in a few makeshift shelters made of boards jammed into the nooks of trees, blue plastic crammed atop an exposed root structure to form a rudimentary igloo, an orange traffic barrel turned on its side. It takes a moment to adjust their eyes from the brilliant sun, to see the dog napping beneath the plastic, the cat observing them from the nook of a tree.

When Loller—a trained animal handler and former humane officer—peers into the traffic barrel, she finds the most vulnerable pair: two terrified puppies, one completely encrusted with a cracked, yellowed layer of scabby skin. The dogs press themselves against the back of the barrel, trying to get away.

This was only supposed to be a reconnaissance trip to check out sites that tend to have a lot of strays and other trouble spots around the island, but Loller can’t bear it. “We have to take them,” she says. “We can’t leave them here.”

Rivera, head of the veterinary medical association in Puerto Rico, agrees. Working together, they tilt the barrel upright so the dogs can’t bolt out. Using a jacket as a blanket, Loller bends head first into the confined space, emerging with the pup who still has some fur. He takes the trembling dog gently in his arms and watches as Loller leans back in for the second pup. A snarl, a scrabbling of claws inside the barrel, and she emerges with the dog—and a series of bleeding puncture wounds up her arms from the terrified animal’s teeth.

Reconnaissance is cut short. After a speedy drive back into San Juan to drop off the pups at Rivera’s clinic—a blood test will later reveal they are sisters— the afternoon ends with Loller in the ER, watching the bites on her forearms purple and swell.

She’s embarrassed about the bite. She hasn’t been bitten since back when she was a humane officer in Philly and a visit to a house unexpectedly turned bad: A drug dealer sicced his two guard dogs on her, and she ended up getting mauled. “It’s been eight years,” she says, still trying to figure out how she could have avoided the bite today. With a frightened, feral puppy, normally she could have grabbed the skin on the back of the animal’s neck, keeping out of the way of her teeth.

But that wasn’t an option today. “I just couldn’t get her by the neck,” she says ruefully. “Her skin is so bad that the back of her neck would have just come off in my hand.”

Laying the Foundation

Loller came to The HSUS as a member of the Animal Rescue Team, then moved into her current role as policy implementation manager for the Stop Puppy Mills Campaign. Stateside, her work usually follows a certain pattern: The campaign identifies places where there are puppy mill laws but not enough enforcement. Normally, Loller says, “I go in and meet with the departments that would play a role—the department of health, other departments, it varies—and find out what role HSUS can play to help them.”

But while Puerto Rico has a cruelty law that’s better than many laws within the continental U.S., there are challenges here that most areas of the mainland haven’t seen for decades, if ever.

In spite of its name, Puerto Rico (“Rich Port”) is not rich. The economic recession hit the island—a U.S. territory in the northeastern Caribbean—particularly hard; in June, the governor announced that Puerto Rico would not be able to repay more than $70 billion in debt. “There aren’t really animal control officers working with shelters, animal control and police don’t have equipment, there’s a lack of training and just a real lack of cohesiveness among the various groups that are trying to do something,” Loller says. Local shelters take animals in, but the lack of resources means that conditions are typically spartan at best. Euthanasia rates of around 90 percent are typical.

With Puerto Rico state affairs consultant Yolanda Alva rez and other HSUS and Humane Societ y International (HSI) staff, Loller’s been working for months to build relationships with government officials and bring together local animal advocates to be part of an HSUS initiative to create lasting change.

“They need to be at a better starting place for us to make inroads,” she says. “We had to give all the players the tools and training to support our longer-term work here.”

Loller and the rest of the team are here this spring to kick off the collaboration, holding a series of trainings for shelter workers, animal control officers and police on topics ranging from coping with compassion fatigue to investigating dogfighting and animal cruelty. Working late into the night, staff assemble field kits for local animal control and police officers, sturdy bags loaded with digital cameras, duct tape and other simple but critical materials they’ll be able to use to document and preserve evidence. Long-term plans include more training for law enforcement and shelters on handling large-scale cruelty cases— which will set them up for success on the puppy mill front—and ideally, an islandwide spay/neuter initiative.

At a press conference announcing the beginning of this ongoing partnership, César A. Miranda Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice, tells the assembled crowd that the work ahead is critical. “Our children see how we treat these beings. They can learn to love and care for them or to mistreat them,” he says. “If we want a better society tomorrow, we need to build it today.”

The collaboration is starting among adults, but HSUS staff will return to train and certify more than 100 school teachers on the basics of humane education, ensuring that more than 400,000 kids will hear that the suffering of other beings matters, and that they can do something to stop it. Copies of The HSUS humane education newsletter, Kind News, will be distributed to every classroom from kindergarten to sixth grade.

A Long History

It’s easy for a visitor to get an unfair picture of Puerto Rico’s attitude toward animals. Between the stray animals wandering the streets and the TV ads for cockfighting (still legal on the island), every year tourists leave Puerto Rico talking not just about the beauty of the beaches and the amazing birds they saw in the rainforest, but about things they wish they had not seen.

Tourists send hundreds of emails and letters every year, writing to hotels and the tourism association with stories of having their piña coladas interrupted by stray dogs begging for food or scenic drives they remember primarily for all the dead strays they saw along the roadsides. Many visitors come right out and say it: They won’t come back here. Not until they can vacation without feeling haunted afterward.

Plenty of local folks care about the problem, but the challenges run deep, and the overpopulation issue is severe. A 2010 documentary on the issue took its title from the estimated number of strays on the island—“ 100,000”—in a place with a population less than half that of New York City.

Some groups have focused on just getting animals off the island, transporting stray dogs to the U.S. and other places where shelters aren’t as overwhelmed.

And many a tourist has fallen in love with a local stray and been unable to leave the animal behind, making arrangements to bring a dog or cat home with them when they leave.

But of course, that’s the thing about tourists: There are only so many of them, and they usually don’t stay. Locals have to live with the issue, day in and day out.

Many Puerto Ricans care about the suffering they see, says Alvarez, even if they don’t yet have the information or resources to tackle it. And some locals have been advocating for change for years. They turn up in droves for the HSUS training sessions—40 people arrive an hour before the compassion fatigue session starts, packing the room to standing capacity.

During the session, there are moments—mostly when people begin sharing stories of animals and situations they’ve encountered in their work—when everyone in the room is crying.

Animal advocates in the U.S. face compassion fatigue, of course. But after leading one of the compassion fatigue workshops, Hilary Hager, director of volunteer engagement at The HSUS, sees a difference: Most people in the U.S. mainland now live in a culture where even those who aren’t actively engaged in animal welfare issues are aware of them.

“We forget that in the U.S., we’ve come so far,” Hager says. “These people are sometimes so alone in their work— or they feel like they’re so alone. They haven’t gotten to see change happening yet, the arc of things improving.”

On the Ground

And yet they keep working for that change, or just doing what they can to reduce the suffering they see. Around the island, every day, people—some volunteers with official rescue groups, some just lone animal lovers— drive the coast roads, their cars laden with dog food.

They slow down at spots much like the roadside grove at Bahía de Puerca, honking their horns, and if you’re there you’ll witness the moment when the trees seem to shift and move, and suddenly dogs appear—one or two at first, then others, then still more, massing and heading toward their benefactors. They’re a mix of types and temperaments, some fluffy and friendly, stepping up and inserting a nose into a palm for attention, others nervously slinking around the groups of people to get to the food.

Many have untreated injuries; many have mange. The dogs with mange are grey and wrinkly, like tiny, malformed elephants. Most of them will never get homes, never have a family to care for them. They’ll live and die here in the groves of ceiba trees along the sea, their little human contact coming from these few women who come every day to leave piles of kibble and call to them with a few kind words.

Some locals have taken on more than they can possibly handle alone. At the Santuario Canita, a refuge for strays high on a hill outside of Guayama on the south coast, fields roll down toward the Caribbean in the distance, the water that unearthly tropical blue, topped by pale sky and high broken clouds, looking every inch a paradise. And yet, here on Carmen Cintrón’s property, there are close to a thousand dogs.

Cintrón has taken them in from around the island; locals bring her more animals regularly. There are dogs everywhere you look, of all shapes and sizes—tiny terrier mixes, fluffy spaniels, a few big pit-bull types, roaming in every direction.

The ones in the kennels set up a chorus of barking, following Cintrón’s movements as she walks the enclosures, greeting dogs by name—Blue Eyes, Blue Eyes’ Brother, Happy. There are dogs in rustic cages, dogs in corrugated tin sheds, dogs snoozing in shallow dirt divots they’ve dug in the shade of a flowering tree. There are more in long runs, more roaming freely near a cheerful office trailer painted bright purple.

While a few have some skin and eye conditions, and some have minor wounds, they are generally in good shape, but Cintrón is overwhelmed by the numbers and the cost.

A native of Puerto Rico, she and her husband served in the American military for decades before deciding to retire back to the island. “I wanted to come back here and finally live the life of a tourist. I remembered the island as an enchanted place,” she says, her mouth twitching with grim remembrance. “One of the first things I saw when I came back here was a female dog dragging her lower half behind her. Gradually, I came to think this island is not enchanted. For animals, it is a horror.”

The massive numbers on this single property show why animal rescuers on the island often feel like they’re bailing water from a boat that won’t stop leaking. Advocates can feed strays and send dogs off-island for adoption, but until spay/neuter is widely accessible and practiced, the dogs will just keep coming.

Prevention Is a Cure

The most egregious animal cruelty in the world is easy to see: A man breaks a cat’s leg, a poacher mutilates an elephant. What’s harder to capture is the way that a simple lack of education and resources has the capacity to affect animal lives just as deeply.

Such is the case with the issue of spay/neuter. Stateside, the animal welfare field has worked for years to figure out messaging that will get people to pay attention to the issue—the boring yet critical fact that when spay/neuter rates go up in an area, shelter intake, and therefore shelter euthanasia, goes down.

In many parts of the States the messaging has worked; high spay/neuter rates have had a dramatic impact on shelter intake rates. In other places, the work continues.

Today, in the shade of a large Quonset hut over a faded basketball court in the Toa Alta municipality, HSI is subsidizing a spay/neuter clinic. Children at recess in the schoolyard next door line the chain-link fence to stare as dozens of pets wait in their crates for their turn for surgery inside the mobile unit and vet techs shave the tummies of sleeping dogs already floppy from anesthesia.

Most of the animals here have been brought in by their guardians, though one stray dog walked in on his own—“a self-registration,” jokes Alexandra Rothlisberger, HSI’s senior program manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, who’s here helping oversee the clinic.

Locals would be charged anywhere from $55-$250 for spay/neuter at a private practice. In Puerto Rico, “a community with spay/neuter at those prices is an underserved community,” she says.

Internet access can be limited in this area, says Michelle Cintron, program coordinator for HSI Puerto Rico, so they get the word out to locals the old-fashioned way: calling, talking to people face-to-face. The mayor of Toa Alta supports their work here, providing a generator and this space for the contracted veterinarians to do their work.

These clinics are often the first time local pets ever see a vet, and some of their owners are worried. One woman stands watching the vet prepare her dachshund girl for surgery. The woman nervously shifts back and forth, nibbling her nails.

Cintron sees lots of people like her. People often start by bringing in one animal, and once they see that it’s an easy process, they come back with more. “It’s not just about the dog, it’s about getting to know the people,” she says. Locals who come and see that the surgery is humane, clean and done by professionals spread the word to others.

Though the surgeries go quickly, the atmosphere here is relaxed, even sleepy as animals nap in the warm breezes and volunteers chat with pet owners. The dogs go to sleep, disappear into the mobile unit, come out again with new stitches, and then gradually wake up in their crates. What can’t be seen is the bright tether that links this work to the prevention of thousands of unwanted births, the thousands more animals who would be suffering in the streets were it not for clinics like this one.

Looking over at a still-sleeping dog whose swollen teats indicate a recent litter of puppies, Cintron smiles. “When we get one of these lifetime mamas, that is just the best.”

A Girl on a Beach

Later in the week, after multiple 18-hour workdays, Loller walks along the beach near the hotel, her arms bandaged and throbbing, the waves coming in over her feet as the last of the sun fades out of the sky.

Like the rest of the team, she’s exhausted. She’s eager to get home to her twin girls, and keeps peeking at their smiling dimpled faces on her phone.

She can’t see the future. She doesn’t know that, less than a month from now, in spite of plenty of tender care from Rivera’s clinic, one of the two pups she helped save from the traffic barrel will die, her little body too worn out to keep fighting.

Nor can she know that the pup’s sister—the one who still had enough life to give Loller a good chomp—will survive. In a month her skin will be better, and she won’t tremble so constantly. In two months, she’ll be walking tentatively on a harness. In three months she’ll be chasing a ball, her dark fur coming back in patches.

There’s a parable many advocates like to revisit when there’s hard work to be done and the numbers seem overwhelming: A little girl is walking along a beach, picking up starfish that have gotten stranded by the tide and returning them to the water. A man comes along and mocks the hopelessness of her task, pointing down the shoreline at the thousands of starfish ahead: How, he asks, can she possibly make any difference?

The little girl picks up another starfish and throws the animal back into the water. “It makes a difference to that one,” she says.

Maybe Loller will think about that story, months from now, watching video of the surviving puppy on her leash, learning about this new world of blankets and treats and kind people. In Puerto Rico, there is now a chance to bring happier endings for thousands of such animals. To make a difference to that one. And that one. And that one.

Watch a video about the Puerto Rico project at youtube.com/watch?v=cmx2sEvg8-I.

About the Author

M. Carrie Allan is the senior editorial director at The Humane Society of the United States, served as editor of Animal Sheltering magazine for nearly a decade, and has focused on telling the stories of the animal protection movement for even longer. She holds a master’s degree in English and writing and has won awards for her journalism, fiction and poetry, including recognition from the Dog Writer’s Association of American, the Cat Writer’s Association, the Association of Food Journalists, and the James Beard Foundation (where she was a finalist for the work she does in her side-gig, writing about booze and cocktails for the Washington Post). If you think there’s a connection between her longtime commitment to animal welfare work and her interest in a good drink . . . well, aren’t you the smart one?