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If you heard that a part of the United States had a 95-percent euthanasia rate for dogs and cats entering shelters, hundreds of thousands of street dogs and feral cats, and more than 100 cockfighting arenas, you probably wouldn’t think it a receptive environment for animal welfare. In fact, your first instinct might be to condemn the jurisdiction for this painful state of affairs.
But our recent experience in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, a part of the U.S. where those sad numbers and circumstances are all too real, reminds us of the danger of rushing to a conclusion. At The HSUS, we see these circumstances as an incredible opportunity to turn a bad situation around.
This April, in an energizing series of events, The HSUS and the government of Puerto Rico committed to tackle animal neglect and cruelty on an island with nearly 4 million human residents.
“Our children see how we treat these beings. They can learn to love and care for them or to mistreat them,” said César A. Miranda Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice, as we stood side by side at our joint press conference. “So if we want a better society tomorrow, we need to build it today.”
At the press conference, we announced a Humane Puerto Rico initiative to crack down on puppy mills, to reach every K-12 public school student with humane education, and to provide new technology and tools for shelters across the island. The HSUS donated evidence-gathering kits to law enforcement, and in April we trained more than 800 prosecutors, law enforcement personnel, animal control workers and shelter leaders on the island. Our global affiliate, Humane Society International, has long been a force in Puerto Rico, helping address the street dog problem with a low-cost spay/neuter program.
A highlight of the press conference was the announcement of Executive Order 2015-8, signed by Gov. Alejandro García Padilla, memorializing the agreement and pledging cooperation from the government.
I was struck by the incredible enthusiasm for this program. Far from finding people hostile or unreceptive to our ideas, I found people who want to do better when it comes to animals but have until now lacked the resources and the know-how to do so. I found people who realize that treating animals better is not only an economic opportunity—because the street dog problem has hurt tourism—but also the right thing to do.
It was a powerful reminder of the importance of not making assumptions. The meetings I had with Secretary of Justice Miranda Rodríguez and top law enforcement officials were some of the most positive I’ve had with state officials in a long time. Just because the island lacks a humane infrastructure doesn’t mean it lacks a humane spirit or the will to do better.
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Our work is grounded in taking on the toughest fights and the most dire circumstances. If we simply did our work in places where everything was in order and neatly packaged, what value would our cause have and what opportunities for leadership would exist? As the Humane Puerto Rico initiative reminds us, people everywhere love animals. The bond endures even in places where animals are at risk or persecuted.
I left Puerto Rico inspired and excited to see our programs there roll out in the months ahead. In all the domains in which you work, I hope you’ll see opportunity where in the past there’s often been despair over neglect and cruelty.