Why We Rescue
Dead Dog Beach - Just the Norm by Lindsey Phipps
Today an estimated 200,000 unwanted and abused Satos (Puerto Rican slang for stray dog), roam the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico, Culebra and Vieques. More than 92% of all dogs picked up are euthanized, approximately 500 each and every day. It has become standard for citizens of Puerto Rico and the surrounding islands to see dog carcasses littering beaches and roadways. This is how 'Dead Dog Beach,' a well-known dumping ground for dogs, gained its name.
The citizens that work to make a difference in the lives of these neglected animals are few, and the support from the Puerto Rican government and its citizens is close to non-existent. Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States, is an island located in the Caribbean. In 2012, the citizens voted for the first time in history to become a state. This is still in progress and doesn't mean that it's like the states. In fact, culturally, it is very different.
My husband and I recently traveled to Puerto Rico for our honeymoon. The majestic beaches and the opportunity to experience new adventures, all with the use of the American dollar, is what drew us there. Tourism is a huge industry in Puerto Rico, and I hope to return to experience more of what it has to offer. With that said, Puerto Rico has a major problem with abuse and abandonment of pets. We saw this as soon as we headed to Ceiba to find our hotel on the first night of our trip. Although, we didn't quite understand how extensive the problem was until we visited Los Machos Beach a few days later.
When we pulled into Los Machos Beach, we saw at least 20 stray dogs, most of which were puppies, and that was just in our general vicinity. Being animal lovers, we were immediately drawn to giving them some attention. They were allvery sweet and not only starving for food, but for some love as well. Many of the puppies looked and acted very sick. We saw a dead dog rotting near a tree, and before we left we had to shoo them out from under the rental car, where they were escaping from the hot sun. We felt horrible leaving them there, but we felt there was nothing we could do. As we left the beach, we saw a local woman spreading dog food along the path for them.
Throughout our trip we continued to see starved, sick and injured dogs. When we arrived home I started to do some research and found a documentary called, "100,000." Everyone needs to watch this documentary to understand what is at the root of this problem and how large it really is. After watching the documentary, I had the opportunity to interview the director, Juan Marquez, about this project. Mr. Marquez started this project with his wife and brother-in-law as a result of a grant they were awarded. They felt that the problem of abandoned and abused dogs is one in which citizens of Puerto Rico are "used to seeing." Creating a documentary would bring this problem to the forefront and bring awareness allacross Latin America. In 2009, when they started this movie, their goal was to reach as many people as there were dogs on the street; at the time that number was estimated to be 100,000.
Since then the documentary has been presented in fourteen different countries and has received numerous awards, including an Emmy. 50,000 people have signed The Pledge "to decrease the overpopulation problem and promote the proper care of dogs..." What surprised them most about this project was that much of this problem stems from a culture that prizes machismo. Mr. Marquez found that, "they identify with the dogs testicles; this is very discouraging because it's not just ignorance about spaying and neutering that stops them from doing it, they just to refuse to do it." Mr. Marquez and his team completed a tour of twenty schools, showing this documentary and discussing the problem with students, with the goal to educate children about responsible pet ownership.
In Puerto Rico there is no government or private program that creates awareness on a big scale, some smaller groups try to visit the schools and communities because they want the kids to take home this awareness and tell their parents about the importance of spaying and neutering. They want the kids to tell their parents that animal abuse is not okay. As a result of this documentary and the work of Mr. Marquez and his team to create awareness, the Puerto Rican media is now interested in this problem.
While there is a long way to go in creating a permanent solution, support from the local media is a big step forward. In addition to the abandonment of pets, animal abuse is a huge issue here. Dogs are transported in trunks to be abandoned at beaches, put in plastic bags and driven over, used for bullet practice and rituals, tortured with machetes and arrows, buried alive, thrown in dumpsters; the list is endless. In 2007, 80 dogs and cats were thrown over a bridge alive. About six animals survived the 50 foot fall, and the perpetrators were exonerated of what is now known as the Barceloneta Massacre. There are laws that exist for animal abuse and abandonment, unfortunately, many citizens don't know that they exist, or the government just does not prosecute. In the United States, perpetrators of the Barceloneta Massacre would have not been exonerated. They would have been held accountable and been made to undergo legal proceedings with fines and/or jail time. Luckily, for some of these dogs that suffer from abuse and abandonment, there is a dim light at the end of the tunnel.
Throughout Puerto Rico and Vieques there are a handful of organizations that work 24 hours a day/7 days a week/365 days a year to make life better, or at least tolerable for these animals. As a result of this hard work, many volunteers suffer their own abuse and torment from citizens who disagree with what they are doing. These organizations rescue the strays, vaccinate them, provide them with veterinary care, bathe them, feed them, socialize them and most importantly, show them love and compassion. If they can't find forever homes for these animals, at the very least, these animals can die with dignity at the shelter and not on the streets. Unfortunately, without the support of the citizens of Puerto Rico and its government, these dedicated volunteers can only make a small difference. On Vieques, there is one animal shelter that holds the responsibility to help all the creatures of this small island, from dogs and cats to the wild horses. Aleida Tolentino, the Shelter Manager, explains that their goal is to "spay and neuter anything and everything they can get their hands on." With the help of PetSmart, who provided a grant allowing them to start a Spay/Neuter and Release Program for the stray dogs and cats and the services of a veterinarian that comes in three times a week, they are able to work toward this goal. Unfortunately this is a never ending battle. Many of the citizens share the common belief that to spay or neuter a dog is punishment; comparing it to the sterilization of people; "being pro-animal rights is letting them reproduce, it's only natural" many say. Aleida does say that the problem has improved over the last fewyears. More and more people are regularly vaccinating their pets. They are taking better care of their animals, and some are choosing to spay and neuter. However, as she states, "as long as someone is breeding, the problem continues." She wants the United States to know that "this (Puerto Rico) is a different culture. The U.S. is raised to love and respect animals, here they are not part of the family for many pet owners.
We need help educating the children to respect and care for animals, explain the benefits of spay and neuter and vaccinations." Puerto Rico will become a state, so this becomes our problem too. We need to make changes happen in Puerto Rico so that massive euthanasia isn't the only solution. Volunteer to be a pet escort if you plan to travel to Puerto Rico, donate your frequent flier miles for the transportation of pets to forever homes in the United States, donate supplies, food and money to these organizations, send letters to Governor Luis Fortuño asking him to find humane solutions to these problems. Demand change and be a voice for these animals.