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Save the Satos

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Puerto Rico has a stray dog problem. Tens of thousands of homeless canines -- hundreds of thousands, by some estimates -- live and die on the streets and beaches all over this Caribbean island of almost four million people.

Strays are referred to as "satos" in Puerto Rico. "Sato" is a derogatory term for "street dog" and usually refers to mutts. Purebred dogs are generally more highly valued on the island. Many islanders treat the satos as a nuisance, as pests, vermin to be kicked away. Satos are routinely abused -- poisoned, shot, beaten, cut by knives, burned by acid or hot oil or boiling water, deliberately hit by cars -- or simply neglected, left to fend for themselves. And, on their own, they breed; strays are born to strays and the problem literally grows.

Compounding the problem is the disinclination of many Puerto Rican pet owners to spay and neuter their dogs and cats. It has been suggested that this may have roots in Latin culture; that "machismo" makes the whole idea of animal castration -- preventive or not -- objectionable. But it is also an economic issue. One spay or neuter surgery can cost into the hundreds of
dollars.

Puerto Ricans who find they can no longer afford to keep their pets often choose to drop their dogs, sometimes even whole litters of puppies, at a beach -- sometimes under cover of night, in secret -- rather than surrender the animal to a city or state-run shelter where the animals will face grim conditions and almost certain death by euthanasia. Municipal animal shelters put down hundreds of dogs each week and islanders fear taking any pets or strays there.

There are beaches off the tourist path which are known to be dog dumping grounds. Southeastern Puerto Rico's Yabucoa Beach, unofficially known as Dead Dog Beach, is one. Another is Los Machos Beach, where we found a stray terrier-mix puppy, less than ten pounds, with mangy-looking fur, some scabs and cuts, skinny but with a distended belly -- a pretty sure indication of intestinal worms. We scooped up the puppy along with another friendly, full-grown stray, not knowing exactly what we were going to do with them.

A local fisherman observing our impromptu rescue operation struck up a conversation with us. He was familiar with the many dogs that roam around the little beach and surrounding area and at first appeared unmoved by our actions. He told us that he was surprised the puppy -- tiny, innocent, utterly defenseless -- had survived as long as it had. "How long has the puppy been here?" we asked. "About two weeks." The man's frustration and anger at the sato situation became apparent when he told us, "What you should really do," he said, "is you should call the mayor. Or come here at night and write down the license plate numbers of the people who leave dogs here." He, like us, was grasping...for solutions.

Stray, neglected dogs are common to many Caribbean islands (and also throughout the Third World), but Puerto Rico is an interesting case because it is a U.S. territory, subject to American-style animal cruelty laws. Puerto Rico does have good laws on the books, but they are rarely enforced.

When police are called to investigate reported animal abuse/torture or neglect, they often either do not ever show up on the scene or do not prosecute the offenders.

Why does any of this matter? For one thing, it's bad for tourism, which is an important part of Puerto Rico's economy. And it's bad for the soul. It's just bad. A civilized, educated society should practice more humane treatment of all its inhabitants that are in need of care and protection.

Many first-time visitors to Puerto Rico are shocked and horrified to discover what is kept hidden from the sunny tourist brochures -- there are stray dogs all over the place. Sick, injured, starving, dying and dead dogs and puppies. Begging for scraps outside hotels, sleeping in empty parking lots, standing or sitting or lying on the side of the road. We counted two canine corpses on the side of the highway on our initial short drive from the airport to the first stop on our itinerary. After we exited the highway, we passed by multiple dogs on the smaller roads. Some were clearly in need of medical care. The ubiquity of these sorts of images -- some horrific and haunting -- was certainly very distressing to me.

My two travel companions and I spent some time with a Puerto Rican couple who have four satos at home. The day after we visited them, they made another unplanned rescue. During their work commute, they had driven past a dog numerous times, which had been left tied to a post by a thick rope around its neck. Tired of seeing the dog suffering, they finally decided to untie the dog and bring him into their home, not sure how they could afford to take care of yet another rescue. The dog's neck bore a gash from the rope cutting into it whenever the dog moved on the very short lead.

Stories like this are very common in Puerto Rico. Individual people -- kindhearted, brokenhearted, regular people -- are moved to try and help one animal at a time, when they are able.

With so many dogs all over the island and so much visible and unnecessary suffering, some amount of sadness and anger and frustration is inevitable.

I saved two dogs from almost certain death in my two days in Puerto Rico, but the experience was surprisingly unsatisfying. It felt like I had taken two drops of water from an ocean or two grains of sand from a beach.

We brought the two dogs to the Save A Sato shelter in San Juan. Save A Sato is a no-kill shelter which is run strictly on donations, much of which come from the mainland U.S. Many of the dogs Save A Sato initially takes in go on to partner shelters in the U.S., such as the Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass., where the dogs have a good chance of adoption and long-term survival.

At Save A Sato, each dog receives a complete health exam, as well as essential vaccines. Sick and injured dogs are given medical treatment, and in some cases, they receive their first doses of affection. When we visited, there was a reiki healer from New Jersey doing gratis energy work on some of the more traumatized, fearful satos. A health certificate is then issued by a vet and then the dog is able to leave for transport to the U.S.

Save A Sato helps many tourists prepare for bringing dogs to the states by providing carriers, vet referrals and airline information to ensure compliance with dog-traveling rules and regulations.

Any traveler returning from Puerto Rico to the U.S. on Amercian Airlines can volunteer to transport a sato as part of their luggage with no strings attached and no cost to them. Save A Sato will pay the full $150-per-kennel flight charge. The dog will be delivered by a Save A Sato volunteer to the airport, with its papers and in a regulation travel crate, and then will be met at the other end by a volunteer from a partner shelter in the U.S.

Island Dog is a nonprofit advocacy organization working with satos in Puerto Rico. They have a group of volunteers who care for animals abandoned on the beaches by providing food and medicine. They also have spay and neuter clinics. The Humane Society of Puerto Rico is also fighting to raise awareness, to create responsible pet owners locally (in Puerto Rico) and to impose quality standards of treatment in their own facility, though they have to euthanize hundreds of dogs every week.

In Puerto Rico, there needs to be better enforcement of existing animal cruelty laws and education about the importance of (and funding for) spaying and neutering. No-kill animal shelters in Puerto Rico and in the U.S. need help in the form of donations, especially now, during this widespread recession.