It was 4 a.m., and the sound of cacophonous barking filled the parking lot at San Juan’s Jet Aviation terminal as 111 dogs were prepped for their flight from Puerto Rico to New York City. As each dog’s kennel was placed on the conveyor belt and made its way toward the chartered cargo plane, volunteers shed happy tears, saying goodbye and sharing their favorite stories of dogs rescued from the streets and now hopefully headed for a healthier future abroad.
Puerto Rico has had a stray dog problem for so long that the animals have become part of the island’s cultural landscape. But while many of the dogs in the airlift were mixed-breed satos — rescued from the street, the beach, parking lots, or major roads — others had recently lost their homes when their owners fled the island after Hurricane Maria and were forced to leave their pets behind.
“It’s a public health crisis,” says Chrissy Beckles, founder of the Sato Project, a nonprofit dedicated to rescuing abused and abandoned dogs in Puerto Rico. “If nothing is done about it, it will continue to escalate.”
Beckles began her initiative after visiting the island with her husband in 2007 and witnessing firsthand the poor condition of so many street dogs. “It was very overwhelming. I spent a week feeding the dogs and really not knowing what to do,” she says. It was this feeling of helplessness, amid local attitudes that a street dog was “just a sato,” a disposable life, that prompted Beckles to volunteer with two organizations that focused their rescue work on Dead Dog Beach in the municipality of Yabucoa. This beach has been an animal dumping ground for more than thirty years now, which is how it earned its tragic moniker.
Beckles founded the Sato Project in 2011 with the goal of rescuing one dog per week from Dead Dog Beach. Each animal was examined by veterinarians and flown to New York for adoption, where the nonprofit’s offices are based and where Beckles knew there was a huge demand for adoptable dogs and puppies. The Sato Project shattered that goal, rescuing 365 dogs during its first year. Yet even the 1,400 dogs rescued from the beach and from municipal shelters in the program’s first seven years were a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated stray dog population on the entire island, which stood at between 200,000 and 300,000.
That was before the hurricane. Now it is estimated there may be half a million stray dogs on the island. The storm made landfall with sustained winds of more than 155 miles per hour right on Dead Dog Beach, changing the entire rescue mission of the Sato Project.
“The work that I’ve been doing for the past seven years is gone. We have lost so many years of work due to the hurricane,” says Beckles. All rescue, spay and neuter, and vaccination work had to stop for more than two months, at a time when the stray dog population was growing to unprecedented levels. The beach, which had been largely cleared of satos living there, saw its population increase once again.
“One of the biggest things that we are seeing at this time, and it has been going on since December, it’s puppies,” Beckles says. “There are so many unwanted litters being born at levels that I had never seen before, and when you start to walk back in a timeline, you understand why.”
After the hurricane, the streets were flooded with previously owned dogs, who mixed with the existing street dogs; in both cases, most were not spayed or neutered. At the same time, many veterinary offices were shut down because of the lack of power and supplies after the storm. The suspension of the Sato Project’s spay and neuter program until November led to unchecked breeding, which in December led to an unprecedented number of puppies.
At the same time, Puerto Ricans were fleeing the island in droves, taking any of the few available flights out. All cargo space on commercial flights was sequestered by FEMA and the military for aid delivery: Any dogs over twenty pounds that couldn’t fit in a carrier under the plane seat had to be left behind. Their owners surrendered them to veterinary offices, left them with other families, or had to abandon them on the street. It wasn’t until January that airlines once again allowed the transportation of bigger dogs in their planes’ cargo holds.
“I can’t imagine how difficult is the decision to leave a family member behind, and so many had to do so,” says Beckles. She recalls a recent rescue story of an older couple who had lost their home and were sleeping in their car. “They would not leave the island because they had two dogs. Their daughter was in Long Island, where she could pick them up if we sent them there. And for them to give me their dogs, trust me with them, and for me to be able to say, ‘You guys can now leave,’ it was so heartwarming. They left the next day.”
After the hurricane, the Sato Project established a new program, No Dog Left Behind, to reunite Puerto Rican families with their pets. “It’s not something I envisioned, but it is a necessary part of our work after the hurricane,” says Beckles. “It has done as much good for our team as it has done for those people that are being reunited with their animals.”
Since September 20, the Sato Project has rescued and transported more than 1,000 dogs — more than triple its yearly average — in just six months. Of those, 187 have been reunited with their original families on the mainland. The rest have been adopted or gone to a foster network in New York, where the Sato Project team works endlessly to find each dog a home.
In addition, since the hurricane the organization has donated veterinary care and more than 50,000 pounds of dog food to Puerto Ricans who are struggling to take care of their pets. “If they keep that dog with that family in their home, then it’s a win-win situation for the dog, the family, and for us,” says Beckles.
The Sato Project is not the only one leading this massive project. Other local nonprofits like Save a Sato and All Sato Rescue have also worked hard to feed, rehabilitate, and fly out thousands of dogs since the storm — all thanks to private individual donations.
The local government is also starting to address the sato overpopulation on the island before it turns into an even bigger public health crisis. It is bringing teams of experts from the University of Florida to help provide better hygiene, vaccine practices, and vetting protocols, in hopes of improving animal welfare on the island.
The Office of the First Lady of Puerto Rico, the Board of Veterinarians, and the Humane Society of the United States have established a program to provide free sterilization for more than 30,000 dogs across the island. “We are witnessing and are part of a new, sensible generation that knows that to reach some goals, the best recipe is to collaborate,” said First Lady Beatriz Rosselló during the campaign announcement earlier this month. “In a historical joint effort [we] will work to reduce the population of animals suffering in the streets, through sterilization and other initiatives like education and adoption.”
As for the dogs that flew to New York on that 4 a.m. flight: Beckles says they were all adopted in less than two weeks.
To read the Voice’s complete coverage of Puerto Rico and Puerto Ricans six months after Hurricane Maria, click here.