Video 2 by Doni Holloway
Story by Samantha Paisley
Photos by Madison Walls
The car veered and whacked Miracle, dislocating her spine. Abandoned following Hurricane Maria in September, the stray dog lay immobile in the Puerto Rican street with paws splayed. Neighbors had taken turns feeding her prior to the accident, but now the clock was ticking.
For any chance of survival, Miracle needed an MRI to assess nerve damage. With no working veterinary MRI machines in Puerto Rico, travel to the United States was her only hope.
Tens of thousands of dogs and cats were abandoned or left homeless by the devastation of Irma and Maria. With Puerto Rican shelters full, agencies like the Humane Society of the United States and the Sato Project are transporting some of them to the United States. But it hasn’t been easy.
For animals lucky enough to touch U.S. soil, their fortune instantly changes. Eager American families line the streets outside adoption agencies, akin to a Black Friday sale.
“These pets are sort of the Kardashians of pets,” said Ric Browde, the president and CEO of Wings of Rescue, an airline that flies rescued animals to new homes “Once they arrive, everybody wants one.”
SAFE Haven for Cats, a rescue shelter and clinic in Raleigh, welcomed 17 Puerto Rican cats – including a pair of two-week-old kittens – at the beginning of October. The other 15 cats were adults, and some showed signs of ownership, such as declawed paws.
Pam Miller, founder and president of SAFE Haven for Cats, said the cats seemed distressed after surviving the hurricanes and traveling on a plane with 70 dogs.
“Since we’ve had them, they’re very needy,” she said. “You can’t go past them without them wanting to reach out their paw to you, to purr. They rub their faces up against their enclosures.”
The Humane Society has also sent about 200 dogs from Puerto Rico to North Carolina in the past couple of months.
The SPCA of Wake County took in 39 of those dogs on Oct. 5. One by one, the crates of animals came off the plane onto the conveyor belt. Immediately, they were sent to shelters across N.C.
The Gards of Cary, N.C., were keen to adopt a dog from Puerto Rico. They welcomed Otis at the beginning of October after seeing a Facebook post from the SPCA of Wake County advertising puppies from Puerto Rico.
With no knowledge of Otis’s former life or even his breed — the SPCA listed him as a “hound mix” — the family took a leap of faith that its newest member would assimilate into his American home.
“I think the most interesting thing is we don’t know what kind of life he had,” Lance Gard said. “It was hard to judge his personality because he had just lived through a Category 5 hurricane, which would scare the crap out of just about anyone.”
Aliya Gard had reservations about adopting an older, relocated dog out of a concern that he may be too aggressive. But once she locked eyes with Otis, she melted.
“He had those brown little eyes, and he was just staring up. And he looked kind of sad,” she said. “He was just licking the boys and tail wagging. I fell in love with him.”
But any sudden movement or loud noise makes Otis jump or cower behind Aliya Gard’s legs.
“He’s kind of like a scared cat sometimes, and he submits to our 17-pound dachshund mix,” Aliya Gard said. “I don’t know if it was from the transportation or from what happened in his previous life. I think he was probably physically hurt because of how skittish he is.”
But day-by-day, Otis relaxes a little more. He adds a playful and quirky dynamic as he bolts through the house with Huck, the family’s other dog.
The Gards also like to think they have played some small part to ease the hardships of Puerto Ricans following the hurricanes.
“Since we took him, that opens the (Puerto Rican) shelters up for dogs that may have gotten out,” Lance Gard said. “The ripple effect of it is nice. When you’ve lost everything, if you can go get your dog, that’s something.”
The scope of the operations that landed Otis in the arms of the Gard family is no small feat. Spay and neuter laws don’t exist in Puerto Rico, and stray animals outnumbered residents before hurricanes Irma and Maria hit. An estimated 500,000 stray dogs roamed the island when Hurricane Maria struck, according to the Sato Project.
Rescuing animals after the storm is difficult on an island where 85 percent of the electricity was nonfunctional in October, and the infrastructure remains shattered.
The first step was identifying which animals were in greatest need for evacuation. Rescue agencies focused their efforts on shelter animals first to avoid inadvertently separating families from their pets.
“The goal is to always reunite pets with their families,” Browde said. “You don’t want to go ‘Oh you know your valued pet, we just sent him to Seattle. You lost your house. You lost everything. And then you discover you lost your pet.’ We don’t want to export misery; we want to export happiness.”
The Humane Society is instrumental in finding and coordinating with its 350 American partner shelters to take in displaced animals. Since Hurricane Maria, it has evacuated approximately 1,600 animals.
The costs of these operations are astronomical. Rescue flights have cost $1.7 million so far, said Kim Alboum, the outreach and policy engagement director of the Humane Society. Its partner shelters also get grants for taking in rescues. Though the invoices aren’t complete, Alboum estimated these incentives total another $150,000-200,000.
But these numbers only reflect operations within the Humane Society. The Sato Project, a New York-based organization that works on the ground in Puerto Rico, declined to comment on its expenses.
The stray animals crisis is so severe that there’s a place locals call “Dead Dog Beach” in Yabucoa, one of Puerto Rico’s poorest municipalities. Unwanted dogs are dumped and left to die here, as there is no food or fresh water along the beach.
Hurricane Maria made landfall squarely on Dead Dog Beach.
“Now, most of the stray pets are probably dead,” Browde said. “They probably got washed out into sea and canals, and their bodies are rotting, polluting and infecting the canals and things that people are actually using for drinking water. So there’s widespread disease that’s going to come — we’re already starting to see it.”
The Humane Society is no stranger to Puerto Rican stray animals. It has assisted all 10 Puerto Rican animal shelters for years with spay-neuter issues and disease management.
“Puerto Rico has been left behind,” Alboum said. “They are about 10 years behind us. They are a U.S. territory — they are part of us. We need to be accountable for the people and the animals of Puerto Rico.”
Christina Beckles, founder of the Sato Project, was at a loss to coordinate recovery operations after Hurricane Maria — a sentiment she seldom feels.
“As soon as the hurricane hit at Dead Dog Beach, I cried, I want to say, for the first time,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 11 years, and it was, in my mind, 11 years work that had just gone.”
The demand for animal rescue on the island is enormous. Tensions are high, even devolving into violent brawls as pet owners try to leave their pets at inundated shelters.
“We literally have a waiting list of several thousand people who want their pets to be on (these flights),” Browde said. “We are not even making a dent in the population. We are besieged. We don’t have the resources, unfortunately.”
Beckles said she receives 300 messages a day via phone, email and Facebook asking for assistance. But just 60 dogs from the Sato Project made it on the first rescue flight to America.
But the aim of these flights isn’t solely to evacuate dogs and cats from the island.
Browde said that each airplane brings humanitarian supplies into Puerto Rico before rescuing pets. His cargo planes are capable of flying 2.5 tons of materials or 210 crated animals.
But these flights are not easy to coordinate. Browde faces logistical nightmares with flights to and from Puerto Rico because of power outages. Many airports were destroyed in the hurricanes, and scattered debris on runways prevents landings.
His first flight was intended to carry 200 dogs and cats to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. He recalled arriving to a disaster scene where animals were lined in crates along the airport’s wall in the shade. The animals seemed thinner than usual and stressed. After trying to re-crate the animals into smaller and shared crates, there still wasn’t enough room in his plane. Six animals were left behind.
“There’s this dread that hits me after the plane closes,” he said. “OK, these are safe. But what about those six that I left behind? And 5,000 other ones that I’m getting emails for? That keeps you up at night and haunts you.”
In the midst of this chaos, rescuers in Puerto Rico deal with personal struggles too.
The Sato Project founder Beckles’ home was struck by a tree and flooded with five feet of sewage water for nearly two weeks after Hurricane Maria. She hasn’t yet filed an insurance claim on her home because her focus has been on running her organization. Given the widespread turmoil, she understands why some people give up their pets.
“People are struggling, and so if you have an animal, they’re coming right down to the end of the bottom of the food chain,” she said. “I’m not judging in any way — I get it. It sucks.”
But that reality intensifies the need for rescue efforts. Beckles plans for two more evacuation flights to transport 200 stray and abandoned dogs by the end of the year. She also hopes for two flights to reunite at least 50 pets with their owners who were forced to relocate to the mainland.
But Beckles recognizes she must shift strategies moving forward for long-term solutions.
“We cannot sustain what we’re doing — nobody can,” she said. “It’s helped the animals in the moment, but it doesn’t help those that are left behind. I want to concentrate on them as well; that’s always been our mission to make change on this island.”
The rescue work is gratifying for those involved.
“It’s really fun when you start seeing (the animals) unloaded on the other side because you just see them relax,” Browde said. “They are just so grateful, and you can see it. The tails start wagging.”
Beckles is especially proud of her work in reuniting families who left their dogs behind on the island.
“It’s one of the greatest things I’ve done,” she said. “An animal doesn’t have a voice. We have to be their voice, and we have to be their advocate.”
Beckles advocated for Miracle, and it paid off.
Miracle curled up on a commercial Delta flight to New Jersey for treatment less than 24 hours after seeing the Puerto Rican veterinarian, thanks to the Sato Project. She was adopted into an American family within days.
Though she will never walk again, she is safe. She has a place to call home.