Caring for the Least Among Us in Puerto Rico

By on July 13, 2015 with 27 Comments By Wayne Pacelle

Puerto Rico is in the news for its financial crisis, but there’s another crisis that’s not in the national news – the treatment of animals on the island.

That crisis is the main reason for the effort by The HSUS and Humane Society International to bring solutions and change to the island. In previous blogs about our Humane Puerto Rico initiative, launched earlier this year, I announced news of our extraordinary partnership with the government and our humane education program in every public school. We’ve also trained the FBI, police, health department inspectors, animal control, and prosecuting attorneys in animal cruelty. We’ve provided social media training for shelter workers, volunteer engagement, and compassion fatigue. And we’re working with the shelters to standardize intake and reporting by giving them free software, training in using it, and free computers and printers. Humane Society International has also been on the ground working spay/neuter/vaccination clinics throughout the island.

It was not too long ago that The HSUS hired its first-ever Puerto Rico director, Yolanda Alvarez, after a generous HSUS member visited Puerto Rico and was deeply troubled by what he saw. Yolanda then partnered with Tara Loller, our puppy mill policy implementation director, and they worked with Attorney General Cesar Miranda Rodriguez to build the elements of the program. This partnership has led to an unprecedented program to reverse the fortunes of the animals on the island.  Yet, despite the hopefulness, the stories of the on-the-ground work from our team can be heartrending, and it’s the case that animals are struggling to survive right now.

I was particularly moved by one story from our team and a wonderful veterinarian, Dr. Osmar Rivera, who came across two puppies huddled in a construction barrel, near Bahía de Puerca, amongst the trees and make-shift shelter. Both were in severe shape and in need of immediate medical attention.

While out on a rescue, Loller and Dr. Rivera said they reached in to get one of the pups out, and then the other. In normal conditions you can safely lift and hold the dog by the neck, but in this case their skin was so damaged by the severe mange she could only gently lift them out while wrapping them in a t-shirt. They rushed the dogs back to Dr. Rivera’s clinic in San Juan, and discovered they are just six months old.  But they told me you’d think they’d already lived a long, hard life by looking at their faces and their weakened bodies.

Blood tests revealed they were sisters, and our team decided to name them Demi and Dolores. They curled up on a blanket for the night after eating a good meal and fresh water – two things that must been welcome and alien to them. They received the treatments for their severe skin issues (Demodectic mange) and other immediate care. In one brief moment Demi and Dolores received a chance. A chance to be real dogs, to feel love, to give love, and to be cared for.

Some days later, Dr. Rivera told our team that Dolores hadn’t made it. She had just been through too much. It was hard for our rescuers to get that news, but I know that at least she had experienced kindness and the best care we could provide in her final days. Though Demi looked to be the weaker of the two, she seemed to be getting physically stronger each day. Eventually she moved into foster care, and is continuing to get well, grow out her coat, and play with her housemates. In time she will find her forever home, and she is proof that when given that one chance, every dog can have her day.

Stray dogs in terrible condition are not uncommon in Puerto Rico, and that’s precisely why we are seeking to drive such change for them in the Commonwealth.

You can see Demi the day we found her in our video below. We’ll post more updates as she continues her convalescence – a symbol of the travails of Puerto Rico’s animals, yet also an example of the resiliency of creatures who are given a second chance.

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Animal Rescue and Care, Companion Animals, Humane Society International

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27 Comments

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  1. Barbara G. says:

    I think I have said this before about this Island country the way they treat their animals is pretty much the same way that Mexico treats theirs. Stray dogs and cats everywhere and they are all starving. It may be a commonwealth and the population can come and go between the US as if its a state but they still need educating about animal care. I hope it changes some day.

    • angelvet says:

      I’m sorry for you but you are the one to need more educated cost in Puerto Rico we have programs to spay and neuter I’m fine home for street dogs the people are lending more for loving the pets. In the US you have the same problems the big difference is the your country is a lot more bigger than mine but you got to read a lot of animal cruelty in the US so please don’t close your eyes cause your country have the same problems all the countries.

      • Wayne Pacelle says:

        Hi, I help manage Wayne’s blog and wanted to respond to your comment. We agree that the problem of pets needing homes is one that we face in the US, which is why The HSUS and HSI work on a national and international level to help the animals. In the US, we are part of the Shelter Pet Project, a multi-million dollar campaign of the HSUS, Ad Council and Maddie’s Fund to promote adoption. We also have our Pets for Life program, working with communities that lack resources to provide those resources, and keep pets with their owners and out of the shelters. Those are just a few of the ways we’re working on the issue here. Our international affiliate HSI just announced that together with the Animal Help Foundation, they have vaccinated and sterilized more than 11,000 dogs in Jamshedpur. Animal protection is a global issue, and we’re working on a global scale to help the animals – whether it’s at home, in Puerto Rico, or in other countries.

        • Heidi L Bartosch says:

          Can you please PLEASE address this problem also in Buenos
          Aires, Arg.? I was there in Sept for a vacation & did not enjoy it
          because of the multitude of sick/starving/stray/unwanted dogs
          every where. The statistic I read was “3mil people & 1/2 million
          dogs”. Conversely, I saw no cats! Do the stray dogs eat them? I am a cat person but every day as I walked around, I would look
          to the skies & say “Oh God, what can be done for all the dogs?” It was so distressing. Please help them.

      • Anais Cruz says:

        You are right, there are problems everywhere, but yes we need to educate ourselves and the Government needs to enforce the animal protection law. In Puerto Rico most people don’t spay and neuter their pets even if you give the service for free, hundreds of litters are abandoned in beaches, roads, and everywhere you can think of. Closing our eyes to this reality is no way of solving the problem. People in the US are not better than us, but they are more effective working with the situation. Proof of this is that there is an estimate of 200,000 stray animals in PR, no State has to face such a situation.

        • Angie says:

          The horrific conditions confronted by the abandoned animals on the island is one that has been ignored for decades. It is greed and lack of compassion that has brought us to where we are. I agree with Alma that it is the Puerto Rican Government (including alcaldes) and the Colegio de Veterinarios who continue to create barriers for those who have a true commitment to the humane treatment and respect of animals on the island. Add to this the fact that most of the residents do not have any respect for animals as well (cultural). It is often that residents are offended when they are called out on their cruel and abominable treatment of animals and their defense is that “this happens everywhere.” I do not want to hear it. As residents they are responsible for taking ownership of the current state affair and should be doing something about it instead of using such lame excuse. Your office can be a strong advocate and become a catalyst of change and you have to make sure you look at the island geographically and create a strong network of nonprofits and independent rescuers that know how to work the cases (they are willing to do it) and you will need their support so that the stray animal situation gets under control throughout the entire island. This is an overwhelming task and the grass-root relationships that you build on the ground are the ones that will support your efforts long-term . All the alcaldes from the various towns/cities need to commit to change and the veterinarians need to get over their greed and leave their self-interest to the side (right now there are few of them willing to work with abandoned dogs/animals). These vets can make a difference in the lives of these poor animals by volunteering or providing discounted services. They need to give back to the community and allow those from outside PR to provide free services that they themselves are not willing to do. Laws already in place need to be obeyed through enforcement including prosecuting those that violate the law such as those profiting from the breeding and sale of puppies. I am excited about your continued presence there and that you will use your financial/human resources to assist in the education, training, creating shelters, identifying those partners that can assist you and also that you can help them in their efforts of saving lives. ANIMAL LIVES MATTER. I have been supporting financially the great work of independent rescuers and nonprofits in PR. I was born, raised, & educated in PR. Currently reside in the U.S. I support your efforts and will like to get involved as you continue to implement your plans.

  2. Cathy says:

    You have no idea truly, I have been volunteering with a rural animal rescue/sanctuary in villalba for 8 yrs ever since we picked up our own stray on a vacation. You have not begun to understand the horror of how dogs are treated, neglected, abused & discarded in PR. You have money, volunteers, free vet care & staff – what about the rest of the small # if groups trying to save lives on this island, they get NO local or national aid (they beg for donations from small # of followers, are limited to those few that will spend their vacation time to volunteer, buy their own dog food & pay for vet care). You have a large task ahead if you want to honestly make a difference in this corrupt environment with generations of ignorance & lack of caring about animal welfare. You will need to spread out amongst the inner areas & smaller sections of the island, if you focus only on the larger areas & exterior YOU will not be helping all!

    • Wayne Pacelle says:

      Hi Cathy, I help manage the blog and wanted to respond to your questions and concerns. It sounds like you’re doing an incredible amount of work for the animals, thank you so much! We understand that part of the issue is that there are many groups on the island, and so while we are trying to make sure we can reach all of them, we are learning of more groups the more we work on the island. We agree that the problem is massive and cannot simply be solved overnight or by focusing in select areas. That is why our plan is taking place in different phases, so that we can reach everyone and so that we make a lasting impact. You can read more in previous blogs on the matter, however to summarize, our approach is to not only train staff at shelters and rescues and provide them with resources, but to work with local officials on how to enforce the cruelty laws. We have also trained the teachers from around the island on how to incorporate humane education into their classes, so that the next generation is taught to treat animals with compassion. We understand it can be overwhelming for those who have been battling this issue for years, so have also provided compassion fatigue training to help them learn to cope and channel energy in a positive manner to help the animals on the island. As you mentioned funding, we’ve also provided training on social media, fundraising and volunteer management so that groups can best utilize the resources available in the community and free tools to continue to increase the support they receive and in turn, help more animals. Please let us know if there’s a specific group you are referring to that you’d like to make sure is on our outreach list for relevant trainings and we can pass that along to our Puerto Rico state director, or you may contact her directly at puertorico@humanesociety.org

      • Lynn says:

        Dear Blog Manager,

        I appreciate your responding to the comments made here on the blog.

        I’m also glad that you are starting to realize, albeit slowly, what the impact of this crisis has on rescue groups that have been shouldering the burden for years of this very complex crisis. There aren’t enough decent and humane shelters that are NO-KILL on the island to accommodate the homeless cats and dogs. I hope that I speak not only for my rescue group, but for the others, too. We all face the same problems.

        A few of the biggest hurdles we face as rescuers is lack of education and enforcement (which we’re thrilled is being addressed), money to rescue, feed, provide medical care, foster and rehabilitate rescues, manpower to rescue and foster, and transport animals to safe and loving homes. Most of us do this while holding down jobs. We know we can’t rescue all of the animals. We know this.

        What is also very challenging is to find vets that will work with us and help with lowering their fees. Let me say right up front that I know they have a business to run, but this crisis is EVERYONE’S responsibility.

        I have been told by many vets that they don’t want outside groups coming to the island to help with S/N/V programs as they can handle it and it takes money out of their pockets. Well, if they could handle it, why are we in the situation we’re in? Very few, very few vets take in strays on their own as they know they will have to provide free medical attention for the animal. Who will pay them and what will they do with the animal? Sometimes vets ask rescue groups to take the animal in, pay for the care to date, then the rescue has to take over from there. Most vets don’t see strays in their clinic unless a rescue group brings them in for treatment. Even if the animal is euthanized, the rescue group still needs to pay the vet. Most vets never leave their clinic for field work and many times that is necessary and needed.

        I would assume that grants are provided for outside groups to come and help if they were allowed in. Couldn’t the grant money not only pay the traveling vets, but also the local vets to assist them? Can’t the PR Veterinary Association step up and allow outside help? If not, the over 350 local vets need to step up to the plate and help rescue groups and others. They need to be very actively involved in helping curb this problem.

        It is a start to S/N/V strays to prevent reproduction, but not the best alternative to a massive crisis. Some of the animals can be saved and rehomed, some can be trained as service animals, etc., and some unfortunately need to be euthanized. Putting an animal back on the street even though it won’t reproduce still leaves them vulnerable to abuse, disease and starvation. And how do you recollect them when annual vaccines are due? Where is the manpower for that? They are still wandering the beaches and streets starving and sick which doesn’t help the economy and tourism. Who wants to come on vacation to see starving, abused animals?

        Our small non-profit, The Hachiko Animal Federation, on the south side of the island has to beg for attention from the powers that be from the north side of the island for education and any resources, let alone donations. It is a drag for anyone to take the trip down from San Juan to our side to see what is going on here, so we do what we can. We were able to coordinate a FBI Seminar on Animal Abuse for law enforcement with Yolanda Alvarez, OICA, ICA and the US Attorney’s office. A BIG step here, first of its kind of which we are thankful for. We need follow up now.

        We need more animal control officers ALL over the island and they need to communicate and work in conjunction with local law enforcement. We don’t have anyone to call in our area. They are all a good half hour to an hour plus away from us and have their hands full. Many rural areas on the island just aren’t of concern as they aren’t very visible.

        Maybe a four or five point plan of action could be considered to start to tackle this issue. Meaning a HSUS coordinator/representative on the east, west, south, north and central sections of the island would be great. The island looks small, but it isn’t when you have to leave work to attend to the animals and seminars, etc. all on the opposite side of the island.

        It’s understood that this will all take time, but rescue groups need to be heard and helped. Our Facebook followers and supporters are watching carefully as to what will be done here in PR considering they have been supporting our efforts for the animals. We are 100% volunteer and 100% donation driven. Our followers want to know their efforts and money trying to bring help to us and the animals is working and will make a change for the better. Donor fatigue has set in and we are all struggling now. I hope we don’t close because of lack of funding and help, but because we made a difference and our services aren’t required anymore, but handled by responsible municipalities and citizens. Thank you for reading my post and considering my points of view.

      • Deborah says:

        A journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step! I want to be a part of the journey – the journey to help the satos of Puerto Rico! How may I be of service?? I’m part of a west highland terrier rescue group in FL – can we partner? I’m also interested in teaching animal compassion in the schools – I travel to Puerto Rico throughout the year – how can I get started?
        Together we can make a difference!!!
        Thank you

        • Lynn says:

          Dear Deborah,

          I’m not sure if you are referring to the HSUS or The Hachiko Animal Federation in your post, but we could use the help and a partner. Please message us through our Facebook page, The Hachiko Animal Federation and mention your post. Thank you!

    • Lynn says:

      Cathy,
      You are absolutely correct in what you said. There is NO help outside of the San Juan metro area where most of the tourists are.
      While it is a step in the right direction for HSUS to be here on the island and rolling out an educational program and training, it won’t do a bit of good if it isn’t implemented on the WHOLE island and if rescue groups and a few private citizens are still expected to shoulder the financial burden through begging for donations. There aren’t many shelters on the island that are worthy of taking in strays and abandoned pets. Even as a registered non profit, we are unable to apply for grants as they are only given to shelters, not rescue groups. The other issue is most rescue groups are very small, only a handful of volunteers usually under 5 people, and we don’t qualify for grants because of our small size.

      Every rescue group suffers from fatigue that comes from lack of funds and begging for funding, no help from locals, apathy from locals and the government, meeting with people in positions to do something and they do nothing, no fosters, no No-Kill shelters in our area, no adoption rate above 2%, helplessness in not being able to rescue dogs, cats and horses you see everyday that are starving right in front of your eyes, seeing injured and abused animals daily, dead animals along the roadside, making decisions to put an animal down that you have no place to bring to heal as vets don’t help and you don’t have room, making those decisions and feeling absolutely helpless. It’s like screaming into a black hole.

      The central government and HSUS have to find a way to HELP the rescue groups that are the ‘boots on the ground’ and carrying the financial burden. Yes, definitely educate the law enforcement and citizens, but supply your ‘army’ with the funds and tools they need to do the job of the central government.

  3. Catalina Sánchez says:

    Excellent short video. I have been helping some non profit organization for rescued dogs. unfortunately, we had this awful situation on the island, a lot of stray dogs, and poor consciousness about the animal care from the population. Sometimes I made some dog rescue, cover all the medical charges, give foster, and put them under adoption. I will like to help to your cause, but I am wondering why is this, since Humane Society of Puerto Rico has a business, and kill more than 100 dogs everyday. Not counting the maltreatment and the arrogant and bad attitudes of most of its employees including the actual president. Im not going to sponsored a Humane Society that does not help, only kills and earn some money. My experience with the Humane Society of Puerto Rico has been really painful, even with threatens to myself. I hope that in the near future this problem and the misunderstood of people about the Humane Society of Puerto Rico can has a chance to change.

    • Wayne Pacelle says:

      Hi Catalina, I help manage the blog and wanted to respond to the points you raised. First, thank you for the work you’re doing! We are working with many different local groups, including the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, who want to work together with us to create lasting change. While we’re not affiliated with local humane societies such as the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, all of the staff we have worked with and provided trainings to have shown a desire and commitment to help the animals of the island. We hope you’ll reconsider joining the effort, the animals of the island depend on our ability to work together toward the big picture goal of not only helping the animals currently suffering, but also preventing suffering in the future through changing how the animals are perceived and treated.

    • Leisha Swayne says:

      Dear Catalina,

      The Humane Society of Puerto Rico is a non-profit organization. It’s Board of Directors do not believe euthanasia is the answer for controlling pet overpopulation, spay and neutering is. The organization has accepted the unfortunate fact that when an animal is no longer wanted, its guardian will discard him/her by surrendering him/her or by abandoning him/her in the streets. We all know the fate the animals face by being left in the street. Since we receive an overwhelming amount of unwanted animals, the Board of Directors has have to make the decision to allow euthanasia, to prevent future suffering, because if we reject the animal, they will abandon it in the streets, in our front patio even.

      Did you know for the last two months we have stopped receiving unwanted animals? We only receive only those whose health is compromised. Which makes us wonder what happens to those we reject.

      Did you know that we have spay/neutered 38,600 animals in the last 7 years? Including 700 in mass spay/neuter for pets of 7 different low income communities across the island at no costs to their guardians.

      Did you know that last year we visited 200+ schools with our humane education program?

      Did you know that we have over 100 animals in our shelter for adoption (including pigs, rabbits, parrots and guinea pigs) and 42 animals in foster care?

      Did you know that when a pet enters our adoption program, he/she doesn’t have a limited time to get adopted? If the pet does not get adopted in PR we move him/her through our different rescue groups or shelters in the US. Most people don’t know this.

      Did you know we have the highest adoption rate in the country? With over 5,000 adoption in the last 5 years.

      Did you know we get involved in cruelty and civil cases concerning animals through the courts?

      And all of this has achieved before the HSUS and HSI became involved in Puerto Rico, and all these programs are still working.

      There is still a lot to do, of course there is. We can’t do it alone, the community and the government need to get involved as well.

      I don’t know when was the last time you visited our shelter, but I do invite you to visit us at any time.

      Best regards,

      Leisha Swayne
      President of the Board of Directors
      Humane Society of Puerto Rico

      • Lynn says:

        Hi Leisha,

        Could we invite you to the Guanica area for a no cost spay/neuter/vaccination clinic, please? It is desperately needed. Please message me through our Facebook page, The Hachiko Animal Federation.

        Lynn
        Community Outreach Director
        The Hachiko Animal Federation

  4. Cynthia Casey Thomas says:

    I am a resident of Puerto Rico, actively involved in animal rescue and the local shelter. I would like to know what/how many of these resources were shared with Vieques and Culebra, the two island PR municipalities which face some of the largest challenges in terms of resources and transportation issues. Thank you.

    • Wayne Pacelle says:

      Hi Cynthia, I help manage the blog and wanted to address your concerns. The resources mentioned were available to different shelters and groups, Vieques for example received the database, computers and printers, as well as attended the trainings we offered. All shelters were invited to partake in the trainings, and those who attended the trainings also received the other resources mentioned, or if they were not able to attend, they made separate arrangements. We try to make sure our trainings are offered in different areas including Vieques. The Puerto Rico Federation of Humane Societies has also been very involved in letting their members know about the resources we are offering. With so many different groups on the island, we do encourage those who were not able to attend the trainings, or were not aware of them, to contact our Puerto Rico state director at puertorico@humanesociety.org so that you are added to the list for future trainings relevant to your expertise.

      • Wendy Price says:

        How does Vieques Island Animal Sanctuary, 501c3 and the only no-kill sanctuary on Vieques become eligible for anything that pertains to Vieques or Puerto Rico has we were not included in any of this. Thank you.

  5. Simon Tanner says:

    Please treat the dogs and cats gentle. These creatures also have the right to live. They were born on this island like you and they cannot get away from there maybe like you. So give em love, water and food. So that those poor humans can survive like you do/will.
    Thanks a lot

  6. celeste arzuaggah says:

    Dear HUMANE SOCIETY;
    I eagerly attended a meeting in Miami with aprox. 10 Puerto Rican rescue groups and YOUR ORGANIZATION CLOSE TO 15 YEARS AGO.
    YOU DID ABSOLUTELY *N O T H I N G* THEN.
    PLEASE, don’t insult the intelligence of those that give their LIFE AND FINANCES DAILY trying to help animals in DiRE need. THE ANIMALS of course DESPERATELY need and DESERVE your respect and honesty as well. PUERTO RICO’S animals and those helping NEED FINANCIAL RESOURCES, NOT more of your “trainings”. They KNOW what to do. They are experts at rescuing, aiding, nurturing and relocating the most fragile with minimal help. All while living ( people AND animals ) with a seriously broken heart.
    PLEASE HELP IF YOU CAN. Encourage the govrnment and veterinarians to DO THEIR PART ! Don’t USE P.R, their animals and the rest of us (living in P.R. or the states), who KNOW “what’s up”. There has been TOO MUCH “talking” and VERY little action on your part for DECADES. I hope this is not another attempt to access donations for your organization given the MANY around the world apalled at the abuse/ neglect of animals on the island.

  7. golden margaret says:

    To the right of my right foot is my new foster dog, a young girl from Puerto Rico who has already had at least one litter of pups–three of the five came with her. She was fostered in Puerto Rico by a small, private rescue until her puppies (one week old when she was taken into the pound) were ten weeks old. There are rescues there who fly some dogs out to rescues who have waiting lists as the group I work with does. Please help those groups who are already organized to move these dogs into legitimate rescues. The pieces are already in place and working.

    • Alma says:

      I am glad that people have expressed man ideas in this blog and I agree that the animal rescue groups need to be addressed and be included in plans to solve the animal crisis in Puerto Rico. Many of these groups continue to rescue, vet and successfully find homes for their animals outside of Puerto Rico with very limited funds and resources. One very important fact that contributes to the animal crisis of this magnitude is that the Colegio Veterinario Medico de Puerto Rico does not allow vets from outside the island to come onto the island for mass spay and neuter. International groups of vets and volunteers have been turned away from the island each year even if they have the man power, the funding and the will to come help in the animal crisis. in January 2015, a petition was circulated which gathered more than 12,500 signatures from animal advocates worldwide asking the Puerto Rican Governor, the Colegio Veterinario and select people in the tourist industry to make a difference and allow outside veterinarians and volunteers to come to Puerto Rico to help with the animal crisis. Several animal rescue groups which included our group (HAF) endorsed the petition because in times of disasters etc, other countries allow and welcome outside international assistance. Mass spay and neuter with veterinarians trained in modern, fast and efficient surgeries are severely needed to begin to make a dent in the never ending reproduction of animals. Veterinarians take an oath when they finish their studies and become DVM’s and that includes not to allow for the suffering of animals. If this animal crisis is not suffering, then I fail to see what else it can be. Mr. Pachelle, if your organization can make a difference, change must come to the island by Puerto Rico accepting and embracing help from veterinary groups and volunteers outside the island.

  8. Natasha Lambert says:

    I am from Australia and I am a supporter of a local Puerto Rico Animal Rescue Organisation. They do so much with so little resources and funding. They document the steady decline of animals in Puerto Rico, posting the tragic tales, the cries for assistance, for Foster Carers, for donations for vetting, food, for donations to assist in euthanising desperately sick, injured animals. They help so much, they do so much and yet they take all this burden on upon themselves and into their hearts. For every animal they rescue, vet, neuter/spay and re-home how many 100s die on the streets? Why are there not spay and neuter programs? Why can external vets not visit Puerto Rico to assist the animal population. Why are there not transparent/open to review shelter systems? How can Puerto Rico as a nation just accept the despair and pain and degradation of its animals?

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