In the Face of Devastation, Rescue Groups Find Puerto Rican Pups Forever Homes

Clear the Shelters

Over the past three years, the island of Puerto Rico has faced mounting disasters – the devastating Hurricane Maria in 2017, several large earthquakes and aftershocks in 2020, and, most recently, the coronavirus pandemic.

The disasters have left non-profit animal rescue groups like Animal Lighthouse Rescue with a big problem on their hands as the population of stray dogs, called “satos,” on the island booms.

Before the pandemic, Animal Lighthouse took in dogs, got them healthy, and used commercial airlines to fly them to their adopted families in New York City.

However, since the pandemic began, the commercial flights have been either diverted from New York City or completely stopped, founder Julie Sinaw told NBCLX. The new process: fly the dogs to Miami, and rent a van to drive them from Florida to New York.

“So even though it was easier pre-pandemic, now it’s almost impossible just to try to get these dogs here,” Sinaw said. “They are healthy, they are loving, they are ready for their families. It’s just getting them here has been so difficult.”

Chrissy Beckles, founder of the Sato Project, has faced her fair share of road bumps as well.

At the onset of the pandemic, she was unable to send dogs to the U.S., so she started an initiative called “Foster From Afar,” which allowed prospective adopters to financially support dogs who had to board in Puerto Rico much longer than anticipated.

The pandemic also forced the “Spayathon,” an event in which the Sato Project and 27 other groups sterilize pets free of charge, to be canceled over the past few months. The initiative, which aims to limit the number of unwanted puppies born on the island, has spayed and neutered more than 52,000 animals since 2018.

Dr. Jose Arce, president-elect of the American Veterinary Medical Association and founder, president and co-owner of Miramar Animal Hospital in San Juan, says the Spayathons play a key role in reducing the satos population.

“The local veterinary community needs to continue to be a part of it — the planning, the execution, the outreach, all of that,” he said. “By us being involved in the process, these programs will be more effective and beneficial.”

While COVID has made operations difficult, the pandemic is just another drop in a bucket that has been overflowing since Maria hit in 2017, Beckles said.

In June, the Federal Emergency Management Agency acknowledged that the town of Vieques still doesn’t have a functioning hospital while thousands of other Puerto Ricans continue to wait for their homes to be rebuilt almost three years after Hurricane Maria.

Beckles, who lives on the island, points to the lingering destruction and economic devastation as the reason why, despite their efforts, there are still a significant number of stray dogs on the island.

As a native Puerto Rican and veterinarian on the island, Arce agrees, pinning the animal overpopulation on the island’s limited resources as a result of poor economic conditions.

“The government is focusing and spending money on really important things like public health and education, and the stray dog problem isn’t really a top priority right now,” he said. “For now, we have to rely on efforts by veterinarians and rescue groups, but in the long term we need for the government to prioritize spay-and-neutering initiatives, pet licensing, and public education on responsible pet ownership.”

Arce doesn’t think the pandemic has affected the satos population “at all,” noting that adoptions have continued and veterinarian offices, identified as essential, are still open.

“We’ve had to change our procedures to limit contact and possible COVID exposure, but it hasn’t slowed us down or prevented us from caring for animals in need,” he said.

However, there is still plenty of work to be done. Adoptions certainly help reduce the satos population, but Arce says sterilization, pet registration and public education are also important.

“Adoptions certainly help, but we need these other things to happen simultaneously,” he said.

Meanwhile, Beckles has been able to fly over 500 dogs to the U.S. since the beginning of July. She has another flight set for the end of August, with the goal of getting the dogs out before the hurricane season picks up.

And it’s a good thing because the pandemic, with its social distancing guidelines and work from home policies, has led to a huge demand for a furry friend, Sinaw said.

“I also think there’s a huge demand now because people are lonely, they’re by themselves, they’re social distancing,” she said. “And a dog gives you unmatched love and attention, and just a little friend by your side. So the demand has gone way up. Way, way, way up.”

The NBCLX team was there when Animal Lighthouse volunteers and adopting families greeted a van with 40 dogs arriving from Miami in the middle of the night.

Families, holding their dogs who have just been unloaded from the van, agreed.

“We’re taking advantage of this time when all of us are at home and will be for many months,” adopter March Hanson said.

“It’s love at first sight,” adopter Jonathon Loy said of his little puppy.

Many of the volunteers have other full-time jobs, but if they get the opportunity to bring more dogs to the States they have to drop everything, Sinaw said.

Animal Lighthouse board member Tania Isenstein watched with an iPhone in hand and tears in her eyes as they unloaded the dogs. Several months prior she had gone to Puerto Rico and helped rescue one of the litters in the van.

“We’re just a group of animal lovers who are doing what we can in our spare time to save these sweet, sweet lives. And make families happy, too,” Sinaw said.

Interested in adopting?

Animal Lighthouse Rescue and the Sato Project are just two of many U.S. foundations helping Puerto Rico’s homeless animal. others include Second Chance Animal Rescue of Puerto Rico, Save a Sato and All Sato Rescue.

Sinaw said if you’re interested in adopting from Animal Lighthouse, you’ll have to do a thorough interview and virtual house tour first.

“It is a very hands-on process between all of our adoption counselors and the adopters. They become part of the family,” Sinaw said.

One man who came to pick up a dog while the NBCLX team was filming said his sister and his roommate have both adopted from them.

“We see not only the dog grow up, but the kids grow up, things like that. So I can’t even tell you how rewarding this experience is – to be part of these families lives,” Sinaw said. “It’s really been a labor of love.”

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COMMON ITEMS YOU CAN DONATE


  • Towels and blankets - Shelters are often cold and animals like to have a blanket to curl up on. Towels are a big help to dry animals off after being bathed or if they come in wet. Towels can also be used to line the bottoms of cages. The towels or blankets don't have to be brand new or in perfect condition. The animals won't mind, as long as they're usable.
  • Canned and Dry Food for Cats and Dogs-Healthy - Healthy pet options for nourishment
  • Kitty litter and cat boxes - Cats go to the bathroom- a lot. Shelters are constantly using bag after bag of litter. Their supply runs out fast.
  • Puppy or kitten formula and nursing bottles - Sometimes there are situations where a young puppy or kitten who is not weaned gets separated from their mother. In these situations they need puppy or kitten formula to survive.
  • Old newspaper - When you're done with your newspapers you usually just throw them away or recycle them, right? You could help animals at no cost to you if you just save up your old newspapers. Newspapers are used in the bottoms of cages. They get soiled quickly, so they're in constant demand.
  • Collars, harnesses, and leashes - Dogs who are taken out on walks need a leash and collar or harness. The shelter loses some because adopted dogs often go home with their leash or harness.
  • Grooming supplies - Grooming supplies can include shampoo, brushes, combs, haircutting scissors, etc. Dogs and cats often come in dirty or end up getting dirty. Grooming supplies can keep them fresh, clean, and adoptable.
  • Toys - You would get bored if you had to lay in a crate alone all day, wouldn't you? Animals in shelters get bored, too. It keeps the animals from being so lonely and bored and allows them to get exercise. You could go out and buy new toys, or you could donate toys your pets or children may have not gotten much use out of. It's as simple as that.
  • Crates and carriers - Animals need to be transported somehow, and the cost of multiple crates and carriers can add up quickly. You can donate ones you stopped using that are still in good condition or you could go buy one for a decent price. This helps the shelter tremendously.
  • Paper towels and cleaning supplies - There are a lot of situations that get messy, so paper towels are a big help.
  • Hand wash and hand sanitizer - People who work at shelters need to keep their hands clean for their and the animals' health.
  • Laundry detergent, fabric softener, and bleach - Towels and blankets get soiled often so the washing machines are being used a lot
  • Dog and cat beds - this can offer the animals a soft place to lay instead of a kennel or cage floor.
  • Heating pads - Many animals come in cold or are young and need warmth. Heating pads can replace a mother's warmth.
  • Copy paper and pens, pencils, post-it notes and staples - You can't forget about all the paperwork that has to be done. Donating these items makes it so the shelter doesn't have to buy them on their own.
  • Garbage bags, mops, brooms, and sponges - The shelter uses these every day and clean up supplies can get expensive.
  • Food bowls - As new animals come in, the shelter needs new places to put food. Having an adequate supply could mean life or death for an animal in a shelter.
  • Rubber and latex gloves - A lot of messy stuff happens and gloves are necessary to lessen the spread of germs.
  • Plastic shopping bags - Plastic bags can be used to clean up dog mess and to store things in.

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