The injured foal has tried to find some respite from the harsh glare of midday, wandering into a stranger’s backyard to seek the shade of two palm trees there. Now she lies on her side, barely moving, just off the main street out of Esperanza, a pretty little town on the island of Vieques, Puerto Rico.
She is breathing, but not easily. Swarming flies gather on the deep tears in her flesh. Every now and then, she tries to brush them away with her tail.
Behind the yard, a few scattered houses and dense green foliage block a rocky drop-off above the blue waters of the Caribbean. Only a few hundred feet away, beach bars and boutique hotels overlook yachts moored in a placid harbor as their owners on shore sip piña coladas or haggle over the price of a sea kayak rental. Occasionally, a breeze lifts a strand of reggae music from one of the bars high enough to hear.
All that seems a million miles away as Kali Pereira of the HSUS tries to get close to the foal to assess how badly she’s hurt. Pereira has watchful company: Beyond the yard, also intensely focused on the foal, are two grown horses—a stallion and a mare—watching the smaller horse and the human activity that now surrounds her. They know something is wrong with their baby, and they’re not at all sure about the intentions of the woman showing her so much attention.
Vieques, some 20 miles long and 5 miles across, is a little island with a controversial history. From 1941, when the U.S. government appropriated a large amount of land here, until 2003, the U.S. Navy had a large presence on Vieques. It included a munitions depot on one end of the island and a bombing range on the other; for years, locals lived with naval planes and warships conducting war games and military exercises in their own backyard.
Resentment among Viequenses—who are American citizens—grew over time, and that anger crested in 1999, when an off-target bombing run killed a security guard and injured several others. The incident triggered escalating protests that went on until the Navy finally abandoned the island in 2003, turning its land over to the Department of the Interior. Since the Navy’s departure, more issues have come to light: Vieques is a poor island, with an annual per capita income of less than $9,000. Rates of cancer and cardiovascular diseases are higher on Vieques than elsewhere in Puerto Rico; many residents and scientists believe this is linked to toxic chemicals left over from the years that the Navy was dropping bombs here. The EPA designated parts of the island as a Superfund site and spent millions of dollars on cleanup, but the environmental damage had a huge impact on local fishermen. There are still areas around the island where signs warn of unexploded ordnance; in 2013, a diver found a massive unexploded bomb embedded in the ocean floor off the island’s coast.
Despite this history, the island is an extraordinarily beautiful place, with pristine beaches, swaths of jungle filled with birdsong and the cries of the coquí—a native frog species named for the sound of its mating call—and a world-famous bioluminescent bay. In the time since the Navy left, tourism has become a much-needed source of revenue here, and the island’s horses are part of its appeal.
Horses originally came to the New World on the boats of the Spanish conquistadors, and the horses on Vieques are mostly of a breed called paso fino, a mix of several breeds from North Africa and Spain. “Paso fino” means “fine step,” and when you see the horses pick up speed, you understand where the name comes from: Their gait is beautifully smooth, looking like something that must have been taught. It’s not—while training can enhance the horses’ step, the fast, even clip is how they naturally move.
Visitors are charmed by the horses, who roam the towns and roadsides with their herds. To many tourists—accustomed to cultures in which horses are typically kept behind fences and boarded in stables—the way the horses move freely about the island suggests that they’re wild.
But it’s not that simple. The equestrian culture here has evolved in a different way. Most of the horses here roam free, but if you look closely at the animals, their manes full of sandspurs and their ears often full of ticks, you’ll frequently notice a mark on their hide, scarred over but visible. These are brands, denoting that someone on the island claims this horse. Even horses that don’t have a visible brand may have an owner.
It’s a small island, with lots of vegetation the horses can eat, so many locals don’t keep their horses on their property, instead allowing them to roam freely and fend for themselves. When people on the island need their horse, Cruz explains, they will simply go out and find the animal, use him for the work they need done, and then return him to his herd.
This is how it was during his childhood, and while the island has evolved a bit over the years, its way of managing the horses hasn’t changed much. He had a horse of his own when he was a boy. He left the island for many years, working on farms and horse facilities around the mainland U.S., and when he returned to Vieques after more than a decade, he found his mare again—still with the same herd, chomping the greenery in the same area she had always grazed. On Vieques, a family who owns a horse will claim ownership of her offspring, too, so it’s common for one human family to be connected to a line of horses for generations—the equine side of the clan, in a way. Cruz has children of his own now; like him, they started learning to round up the horses and ride them almost as soon as they could walk.
But because the horses here aren’t confined, they roam freely and breed unchecked. And their numbers have risen—the statistics are debated, but estimates range up to 3,000 animals, close to one horse for every three human residents on the island. Sources of fresh water are scant, so the horses often come into the two main towns looking for a drink. Sometimes they damage water pipes. They wander through the narrow streets, grazing in the yards, scavenging people’s trash for food, knocking down fencing to get at tasty fruits in the trees. They are, in some ways, like docile, rideable, 850-pound raccoons.
To read more about the HSUS’s work in the Caribbean, check out “Saving the strays of Puerto Rico.”
As the equine population has risen, so has tourism. As more visitors come to Vieques, providing revenue and jobs for an island that desperately needs them, automotive traffic has increased. With more horses in densely populated areas of the island, there are more traffic accidents, which are dangerous for the people involved and often cause grievous injury to the animals.
Vehicular and other serious injuries—like the dog attack on the little foal—often prove fatal. Given most residents’ limited financial resources and the low availability of veterinary care, many injuries that might be treatable elsewhere necessitate euthanasia, but with the difficulties in ascertaining ownership, even providing that small mercy is often no simple matter.
No one wants the horses to disappear. They’re a much-loved part of the island’s cultural identity and a source of pride for many Viequenses. But it’s increasingly clear that their numbers need to be controlled to reduce these tragic incidents and that the local community needs more resources to help the animals thrive.
That’s why Pereira and the rest of the team from the HSUS and Humane Society International are here. They’ve come at the request of the island’s mayor, invited after word spread about their animal welfare efforts on the main island of Puerto Rico. Tara Loller of the HSUS helped to spearhead the initiatives and says it’s the first time that the horses on this island have gotten large-scale help.
With the support of donors—some of whom visited Vieques in January to participate in the work—the organization is partnering with the municipality to increase the health and welfare of all the island’s animals, with a particular focus on its horses. The project, which has provided educational resources, veterinary and grooming supplies, spay/neuter clinics for local animals and a wellness clinic for the community’s horses, has engaged a wide range of HSUS staff, requiring expertise in animal handling, cruelty investigations, wildlife management and biology, community outreach, humane education and more.
“Some people thought we would be taking the animals away, or thought that the drug would cause a pregnant mare to abort the baby,” Pauli says. “He has been critical in helping us let people know that we are here for no harm.”
By acting as a communicator and role model, Cruz hopes to help establish a new approach to equine care and ownership on the island that he hopes will catch on over time. Pereira is working to get him certified to administer PZP. After the HSUS project here wraps up—the organization expects to be here for five years—ideally, the mission will continue through Cruz and other locals, who can demonstrate that providing better day-to-day care for these horses isn’t something that takes a lot of money.
“That’s what I do most every day, try to explain to people what we do,” says Cruz. “Show the people how to really take care of a horse. … It’s different in the U.S. to raise a horse than here. In the U.S., you have to have vaccinations. Here they let the horse go free, raise itself, do the best they can. … They don’t know much about vaccinating and all that stuff. But in the future, this island is going to be way better than it used to be.”