April 17, 2015
Not the Paradise It Seems
The HSUS and Puerto Rico launch monumental partnership to overhaul animal welfare on the island
By M. Carrie Allan
You can see the ocean from the Sanctuario de Canitas, this property high on a hill outside of Guayama on Puerto Rico’s southern coast. The water is an unearthly tropical blue, topped by pale sky and high broken clouds, a beauty that lures thousands of tourists to the island every year.
From such a distance, it looks every inch a paradise. And yet, that dream of the tropics seems far away. Because from this hill, you can also look down over the rolling terrain of Carmen Cintrón’s property and see, from any given point, hundreds and hundreds of homeless dogs.
Cintrón has taken them in from the streets around the island. There are more every way you look: dogs of all shapes and sizes—tiny terrier mixes, fluffy spaniels, a few pit bull types—roaming in every direction.
The dogs in the kennels set up a chorus of barking as Cintrón walks by, greeting them by name—Blue Eyes, Blue Eyes’ Brother, Happy. There are dogs in rustic cages, dogs in corrugated tin sheds, dogs snoozing in shallow dirt divots they’ve dug in the shade of a flowering tree. There are more in long runs, more roaming freely in a large fenced area near a cheerful office trailer painted bright purple.
Cintrón may have close to a thousand.
While a few have some skin and eye conditions, these dogs are generally in good shape. They’re far better off here than they would be living under dumpsters and dodging cars, as most of them were before they came here.
In Puerto Rico, at the present, there just aren’t many better options to help the massive numbers of homeless animals. While Cintrón is doing her best to help, she is overwhelmed by the numbers and the cost. So are the scores of other rescue groups and shelters that, for years, have been trying to cope with the animal neglect, cruelty and massive stray animal population in Puerto Rico, where spay/neuter is not widely practiced but animal abandonment, sadly, is.
“For animals, it is a horror”
Cintrón’s story is emblematic of the larger picture. A native of Puerto Rico, she and her husband served in the American military for decades before deciding to retire to the island she remembered fondly.
“I wanted to come back here and finally live the life of a tourist. I remembered the island as an enchanted place,” she says, her mouth twitching with grim remembrance of her naiveté. “One of the first things I saw when I came back here was a female dog dragging her lower half behind her. Gradually, I came to think this island is not enchanted. For animals, it is a horror.”
If we want a better society tomorrow, we need to build it today.” —César A. Miranda Rodríguez, Puerto Rico Secretary of Justice
The HSUS hopes to change that. Working with the government of Puerto Rico, the organization is launching a broad initiative to crack down on the island’s puppy mills, which add thousands of dogs to the homeless animal population every year. And through a series of trainings conducted in San Juan—attended by hundreds of shelter staff, rescuers, police, FBI agents and animal control officers—the organization aims to empower locals to build an infrastructure that will support enforcement of the island’s animal cruelty laws, promote a culture of loving pet ownership and bring humane education to schools.
“Our children see how we treat these beings. They can learn to love and care for them or to mistreat them,” César A. Miranda Rodríguez, Puerto Rico’s secretary of justice, told police trainees, reporters and government representatives at a press conference. “So if we want a better society tomorrow, we need to build it today.”
“Puerto Rico actually has great laws—laws we’d love to see in parts of the States,” says HSUS policy implementation manager Tara Loller, who, along with state affairs consultant Yolanda Alvarez, has spearheaded the effort here and has been building relationships for months to bring the project to fruition. “There’s just no enforcement right now.”
As a result, animal welfare workers on the island often feel like they’re bailing water from a boat that won’t stop leaking. Advocates feed strays. Others send dogs off the island for adoption in the United States. But until spay/neuter is implemented widely and the puppy mills are shut down, the dogs will just keep coming.
Near a beautiful beach on Bahia de Puerca, in a cluster of ceiba trees strewn with trash and makeshift shelters, Loller and Osmar Rivera, head of Puerto Rico’s veterinary medical association, peered into an overturned orange traffic barrel to find two terrified puppies, one of them severely infected with mange, her skin crusty and brittle with sores.
Though not equipped with rescue gear, they couldn’t leave them behind. A careful series of maneuvers got the first pup into Rivera’s arms, but the second one—frightened and in pain—bit Loller as she was lifted from the barrel, sending her to the ER that afternoon.
Recovering now and still hard at work, Loller says it was worth it. The pups are being treated at Rivera’s clinic and will be adopted once they’ve recovered. Bloodwork revealed they’re sisters.
Loller hopes that the work The HSUS is doing here will bring happier endings for thousands more like them. While animal welfare in Puerto Rico has long been a concern to both natives and visitors, there are finally signs of a possibility for lasting change.