Over the past three years, the island of Puerto Rico has faced mounting disasters – the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, several large earthquakes and aftershocks in 2020, and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.
The disasters have left non-profit animal rescue groups like Animal Lighthouse Rescue with a big problem on their hands as the population of stray dogs, called "satos," on the island booms.
Before the pandemic, Animal Lighthouse took in dogs, got them healthy, and used commercial airlines to fly them to their adopted families in New York City.
However, since the pandemic began, the commercial flights have been either diverted from New York City or completely stopped, founder Julie Sinaw told NBCLX. The new process: fly the dogs to Miami, and rent a van to drive them from Florida to New York.
"So even though it was easier pre-pandemic, now it's almost impossible just to try to get these dogs here," Sinaw said. "They are healthy, they are loving, they are ready for their families. It's just getting them here has been so difficult."
Chrissy Beckles, founder of the Sato Project, has faced her fair share of road bumps as well.
At the onset of the pandemic, she was unable to send dogs to the U.S., so she started an initiative called "Foster From Afar," which allowed prospective adopters to financially support dogs who had to board in Puerto Rico much longer than anticipated.
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The pandemic also forced the "Spayathon," an event in which the Sato Project and 27 other groups sterilize pets free of charge, to be canceled over the past few months. The initiative, which aims to limit the number of unwanted puppies born on the island, has spayed and neutered more than 52,000 animals since 2018.
Dr. Jose Arce, president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association and founder, president and co-owner of Miramar Animal Hospital in San Juan, says the Spayathons play a key role in reducing the satos population.
"The local veterinary community needs to continue to be a part of it — the planning, the execution, the outreach, all of that," he said. "By us being involved in the process, these programs will be more effective and beneficial."
While COVID has made operations difficult, the pandemic is just another drop in a bucket that has been overflowing since Maria hit in 2017, Beckles said.
In June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that the town of Vieques still doesn't have a functioning hospital while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria.
Beckles, who lives on the island, points to the lingering destruction and economic devastation as the reason why, despite their efforts, there are still a significant number of stray dogs on the island.
As a native Puerto Rican and veterinarian on the island, Arce agrees, pinning the animal overpopulation on the island's limited resources as a result of poor economic conditions.
"The government is focusing and spending money on really important things like public health and education, and the stray dog problem isn’t really a top priority right now," he said. "For now, we have to rely on efforts by veterinarians and rescue groups, but in the long term we need for the government to prioritize spay-and-neutering initiatives, pet licensing, and public education on responsible pet ownership."
Arce doesn't think the pandemic has affected the satos population "at all," noting that adoptions have continued and veterinarian offices, identified as essential, are still open.
"We’ve had to change our procedures to limit contact and possible COVID exposure, but it hasn’t slowed us down or prevented us from caring for animals in need," he said.
However, there is still plenty of work to be done. Adoptions certainly help reduce the satos population, but Arce says sterilization, pet registration and public education are also important.
"Adoptions certainly help, but we need these other things to happen simultaneously," he said.
Meanwhile, Beckles has been able to fly over 500 dogs to the U.S. since the beginning of July. She has another flight set for the end of August, with the goal of getting the dogs out before the hurricane season picks up.
And it's a good thing because the pandemic, with its social distancing guidelines and work from home policies, has led to a huge demand for a furry friend, Sinaw said.
"I also think there's a huge demand now because people are lonely, they're by themselves, they're social distancing," she said. "And a dog gives you unmatched love and attention, and just a little friend by your side. So the demand has gone way up. Way, way, way up."
The NBCLX team was there when Animal Lighthouse volunteers and adopting families greeted a van with 40 dogs arriving from Miami in the middle of the night.
Families, holding their dogs who have just been unloaded from the van, agreed.
"We're taking advantage of this time when all of us are at home and will be for many months," adopter March Hanson said.
"It's love at first sight," adopter Jonathon Loy said of his little puppy.
Many of the volunteers have other full-time jobs, but if they get the opportunity to bring more dogs to the States they have to drop everything, Sinaw said.
Animal Lighthouse board member Tania Isenstein watched with an iPhone in hand and tears in her eyes as they unloaded the dogs. Several months prior she had gone to Puerto Rico and helped rescue one of the litters in the van.
"We're just a group of animal lovers who are doing what we can in our spare time to save these sweet, sweet lives. And make families happy, too," Sinaw said.
Interested in adopting?
Animal Lighthouse Rescue and the Sato Project are just two of many U.S. foundations helping Puerto Rico's homeless animals. Others include Second Chance Animal Rescue of Puerto Rico, Save a Sato and All Sato Rescue.
Sinaw said if you're interested in adopting from Animal Lighthouse, you'll have to do a thorough interview and virtual house tour first.
"It is a very hands-on process between all of our adoption counselors and the adopters. They become part of the family," Sinaw said.
One man who came to pick up a dog while the NBCLX team was filming said his sister and his roommate have both adopted from them.
"We see not only the dog grow up, but the kids grow up, things like that. So I can't even tell you how rewarding this experience is – to be part of these families lives," Sinaw said. "It's really been a labor of love."