RINCON, Puerto Rico — On Wednesday, Sept. 20, 2017, at 6:15 a.m., Hurricane Maria made landfall just south of Yabucoa Harbor in Puerto Rico.
What happened was in the news worldwide. The island was devastated. People were and still are without power, drinking water, medical care, food, shelter.
Since then, news reports continue to share the progress, or lack thereof, of rebuilding. It reports on the people of Puerto Rico and their ongoing struggle.
What they don’t report on is the animal population which is no less, and in some ways more, devastated than the human population.
This year, on April 24, three members of Responsible Pet Care in Paris left for Rincon, Puerto Rico, to see for themselves.
“All the devastation had been reported to us by Ellen Berrios,” says 67-year-old Pat Ingersoll, canine director and trainer at RPC. Berrios, she explains, is the head of the volunteer organization Defensa Animal de Rincon (Animal Defense of Rincón).
Accompanying Ingersoll were Shelter Manager Lucille Larson, 55, and RPC board of directors member and volunteer Morgan Miles, 30.
Berrios had visited RPC last winter to see for herself if she wanted to partner with the organization to rescue dogs and cats left to fend for themselves after Maria.
While she was visiting, Ingersoll says “there just happened to be some news about how well Puerto Rico is bouncing back. She (Berrios) said that was only in the tourist sections … everywhere else was still without electricity and water.”
“So we went to see for ourselves.”
The three traveled at their own expense and, once there, rented a car so they could investigate unencumbered.
“We saw such beauty,” says Ingersoll shaking her head.
“But once we got out of the tourist areas all we saw was devastation, trash, destruction, buildings falling into the ocean … and animals,” continues Miles.
“Up in the mountains, it was eye-opening,” Larson adds.
“Many areas only have water a few times a day and intermittent power,” explains Ingersoll. She tells of a woman eating from a dumpster, noting it was not unusual.
But the biggest problem, Ingersoll says, for animal rescue is the lack of facilities. In fact, the only facilities are those used to euthanize.
In Rincon alone, says Miles, thousands of stray dogs.
After the hurricane people were medically evacuated and they could only take what they could hold on their lap so they had to leave their pets behind, the three explain.
They say horses and other farm animals were left tied to trees. They would eventually get loose, and get hit by cars. They were starving.
Dogs and cats were ill, hungry and homeless.
But, notes Ingersoll, “it was so interesting to see loose dogs together in a pack playing, surfing and playing in the waves. The packs all get along with no people involved.”
“We met up with another organization while we were there,” says Larson. That organization — Animal Rescue Foundation of Rincon or ARF – collects stray animals in a “trap and release” program where the animals are vaccinated, spayed/neutered and released.
“These people love animals,” says Larson. “The ARF director — Miriam Juan-Perez — knows hundreds of animals by name if they have been spayed/neutered and are actually owned.”
In an attempt to keep the animal population under control there are mass sterilizations, says Ingersoll, where a hundred or so are brought to a large covered building and spayed or neutered.
While it is an uphill battle, they hope that eventually it will work and the number of strays will go down. Meanwhile, especially after the hurricane, the animals are fending for themselves.
“There a place called Dead Dog Beach,” says Miles. “They told us not to go there but it is where dogs hang out to die of starvation or infection.”
The Washington Post wrote about this not long after Maria hit.
“In Puerto Rico, they are called satos — unwanted, often abused mongrel dogs that have been dumped on a beach in the southeast corner of the island, called Playa Lucia,” reads the Post article by Cleve R. Wootson Jr. “Hundreds have roamed the sand in unruly, starving packs for so long that the locals have given the area another name: Dead Dog Beach.”
But all is not without hope.
Way up in the mountains, a lady named Jillian from Wisconsin who is volunteering on a fruit farm, found a little guy she calls Sebastian.
“Sebastian just showed up one day,” tells Ingersoll, “and never left. She (Jillian) paid for all his vetting and began trying to find a home for Sebastian.”
The three say they saw Sebastian at the market a couple of times and Miles finally asked the woman on the other end of his leash if she could pet him. Jillian agreed and asked if they knew anyone who wanted a dog.
You don’t asked an RPC person that question and get anything but a resounding “yes!”
So Jillian kept Sebastian until the day before the three were to return home to Paris “and we brought him home!” laughs Miles.
Sebastian is a mixed breed who, with another rescue Zeus, slept the whole way back to Maine.
At 20 weeks, and a healthy 13 pounds, Sebastion was adopted May 16 and lives with his new family in Sumner.
Zeus is a chihuahua/boxer mix. His mother Maria survived Hurricane Maria while pregnant. She gave birth to her puppies in Rincon and then emigrated to Maine and to RPC.
“She was one of the first Defensa sent to us,” says Ingersoll. Maria now lives with her new family in South Paris.
Although Puerto Ricans, as a society, love animals, they view them differently than Americans. They don’t neuter because it goes against the machismo culture of Puerto Rican men who do not want to emasculate their dogs, according to a CNN report.
Consequently dogs breed and overpopulation is rampant.
“Some people will poison or shoot animals, because of overpopulation,” says Larson.
“We gained a lot of knowledge and respect for what they do there,” Ingersoll adds.
“It was a very emotional journey,” Larson says as Miles notes, “we broke down a lot.”
Retelling it, all three had moments of glistening eyes and a tear rolled down Larson’s cheek as she remembered the woman eating from the dumpster.
Nevertheless, all three want to go back.
They especially want to go when the mass spay/neuter events happen.
“They have vets from all over who go and help spay and neuter,” they say. “And school children in the area are heavily involved with ARF and they with those events too.help
Defensa, they say, handles a lot of horses along with dogs and cats, but ARF only handles dogs and cats.
RPC only takes animals from outside of the area when its numbers are low.
“Spay/neuter programs throughout New England have been so successful,” explains Ingersoll, “that the number of local dogs we see a year is low. So if we can save some lives by going outside of the area, why not? We take adult dogs who would not have homes, spay/neuter, vaccinate and find them homes.”
The three explain the local dogs are usually strays, surrenders, brought in by Animal Control Officers or have medical problems their owners can’t afford.
Although they don’t know exactly when, RPC expects to get the following dogs from Puerto Rico over the next few months:
- Shih tzu – 2 years-old
- Chihuahua – 4 years old
- Chihuahua mix – 3 years old
- Belgian malinois – 1.5 years old
- Chihuahua mix – 6-7 years old
- Miniature pincer – 2years old
- Miniature pincer – 10 months old
- Beagle mix – 5 months old
- Chihuahua – 2 years old
- Border collie mix – 1 year old
Anyone wishing to help RPC in its efforts should contact Lucille Larsen at 207-743-8679. For more information on RPC visit www.responsiblepetcare.org.
For more information about Defensa Animal de Rincon, visit its website at defensarincon.org.
To learn more about ARF visit arfrincon.org.
Morgan Miles with Zeus and Pat Ingersoll with Sebastian at the airport in San Juan ready to fly home to Maine.
Six Chihuahua mix puppies, currently being cared for by ARF in Rincón, will hopefully fly to RPC later this summer.
From left, Ellen Berrios of Defensa, Pat Ingersoll, Lucille Larsen and Morgan Miles of RPC holding kittens in Rincón, Puerto Rico.
Condos and apartment buildings, many falling into the ocean, are examples of the remaining devastation from Hurricane Maria.