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Friday, July 29, 2016

Uncertain Times for Island Dog in Puerto Rico

It takes an island

Red Collar Dogs/Photo by Island Dog

Puerto Rico is a jewel of an island in the Caribbean Sea. Home to beautiful beaches, tropical rain forests and century-old Spanish colonial plazas, the island has a rich and colorful history. Lately however, it has been beset by problems. The island, a US territory since 1898, is $72 Billion in debt with unemployment at high of 12.2%. Citizens are flocking to the mainland US in search of better jobs. In the midst of all this strife, the island’s animals have been forgotten. That is where IslandDog steps in.

Imagine if the state of Connecticut were home to over 200,000 dogs, all roaming the streets. That was the situation on Puerto Rico 10 years ago. Even though each of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities is required by law to have an animal shelter, there are only five currently operating and they are so overwhelmed with animals that they are forced to euthanize almost 98% of the incoming animals. Another sad statistic is that there are an estimated 450 pet shops on this tiny island, all of them selling uncertified animals. Fortunately these creatures have hope through Island Dog.

Photo by Island Dog
Katie Block founded Island Dog in the city of Fajardo in the summer of 2006. A native of Baltimore, MD, Block came to Puerto Rico in 1999 to work at the El Conquistador Resort hoping to find a little slice of paradise, which she did. However, she noticed that Puerto Rico was not much of a paradise for the many dogs roaming the beaches. Soon she was rescuing dogs and begging hotel guests to take them home. In 2002 she realized her rent money was going to veterinary bills and had to return home to Baltimore. During this time she finished her Bachelor’s degree and did some traveling. However, she never forgot about the dogs and eventually made her way back to Fajardo.

As Director of Island Dog, Block oversees this growing organization along with a small group of dedicated volunteers. Their mission is a large one, some might say impossible:  To create an animal-friendly Puerto Rico. They work on this goal in a variety of ways. The most important is by offering free or low-cost spay/neuter clinics and other veterinary services because she estimates that less than 10% of the island’s population has ever taken their pets to see a veterinarian. They feed and medicate homeless dogs who live on the beaches and provide rescue for adoptable animals. One of their more ambitious projects is to provide education programs for children to encourage humane treatment and respect for animals. 

Block has her work cut out of for her. Attitudes towards companion animals in Puerto Rico are vastly different than on the mainland.

“In the States we treat our pets like family. We feed them daily, walk them on leashes, bath them, take them to the vets, etc.” Block says. “However, pets here are treated as secondary. Many suffer long illnesses and never see a vet. Others are just dumped on the street or beach when they get sick. Animals are easily thrown away as trash, when they aren’t cute anymore or you’re just not interested.” Block is quick to add that Puerto Rican people are welcoming.

“They are misinformed about the proper treatment of animals. It’s not an intentionally cruel island,” she says. Island Dogs currently feeds about 200 beach dogs every day in six different locations with the help of volunteers.

Photo by Island Dog
One of the worst areas for dogs is an area nicknamed Dead Dog Beach on the southeast coast near the city of Yabucao. Due to easy access and lack of law enforcement, the beach near Yabucao has become a dumping ground for unwanted and sick dogs and sometimes a training ground for dog fighting. This beach is so notorious it has been featured in major magazines. Island Dog is trying to clean up the reputation of this beach. Because of this work Island Dog began to get notice from the mainland. A former volunteer was featured in People Magazine. Television show host Ellen DeGeneres happened to see that article and donated $10,000 of her Halo dog food to the shelter. Recording artist Selena Gomez, also a fan, recorded a You Tube video promoting the shelter.
After 10 years, Block finally sees some results.

“We are still working daily on the East Coast to sterilize as many homeless and owned dogs as possible,” she says. “We have seen at least a 50% decrease of homeless dogs on this side of the island. Proof all the spay and neuter work is doing the job. We are rescuing less dogs because there are less dogs on the streets.” This allows the organization to move funds that would normally go for ongoing care back into spay and neuter.  “Which is really the key to ending the overpopulation problem,” she says.

“I would say over the past five years we have really focused on sterilization verses rescue because we have seen such a positive and dramatic difference. We have done over 6,500 surgeries on the East Coast in the past eight years.” However, other parts of the island are not doing as well.

“The sad part is that when we travel to the middle of the island or isolated area, it’s like all our work has been for nothing. There are homeless dogs and puppies everywhere. It’s very difficult to see the difference in towns where spay and neuter is available verses not having programs. Therefore we are trying to expand our sterilization program to more remote areas of the island.”

Puerto Rico’s current economic crisis makes things more precarious.

Island Dog Shelter/Photo by Island Dog
“Sadly, Puerto Rico is going through a difficult time. The island is financially broken. People are suffering. We fear even more animals will be dumped by their owners on the streets as people are fleeing the island in record numbers. Receiving government help is not possible. We understand whatever aide the island does receive has to go to keeping lights on in the hospital and schools open. I’ve lived on the island on and off for the past 20 years and I’ve never seen it in such bad shape. It’s scary living here not knowing what will happen. We worry everyday about the future of the animal culture as the island’s future is unknown.”

Island Dog has a large dedicated team of volunteers, both on island and on the mainland, people who work hard for the island’s animals, providing lifesaving medical care and transportation services for adopted animals. Although the organization has received much publicity over the years, it hasn’t always turned into funds. What Block needs most right now is cold hard cash.

“This is difficult because there are never enough funds,” she states. “We have to keep sterilizing everyday on the East Coast to maintain the work we have already done, plus spread the love to other towns. People are very giving when it comes to rescue, but spay and neuter does not pull on the heart strings like rescuing a pup from the streets. Which is very sad and frustrating, because we have proven that spay and neuter PREVENTS the dogs from being dumped onto the streets in the first place, thus decreasing the need to rescue.”

Island Dog Shelter/Photo by Island Dog
Block is frustrated by the lack of response in community vets in helping spay and neuter. Many fear it will lower their profits. Currently, law prohibits volunteer vets from the mainland coming in to provide free services. Block and the island’s animal welfare community have helped create a bill currently in the legislature that will allow volunteer vets to help. If passed, it will allow Island Dog to serve more communities with spay and neuter programs.

Block stated on her June blog that when the bill was introduced, the organization is doing this because they have to, not because they want to. Block argues that because these are homeless pets, pets that wouldn’t enter veterinary offices anyway, the ban is overreaching and veterinarians won’t lose money. The Humane Society of the US, which helped craft the bill, estimates that there now are 300,000 dogs and 1 million cats homeless on the island. The bill also includes making breeding and selling animals illegal, one of the strictest laws in the US and its territories.

“Let’s be clear. Island Dog works daily with a few veterinarians on the island that have lowered their costs and opened their clinics to us so that we may help decrease the overpopulation problem,” Block writes. “We have highest regards and respect for these vets…All of us in the animal welfare community are grateful for their presence and efforts, but sadly it’s not enough.” Read the full legislative response on Block’s blog here.

Photo by Island Dog
Island Dog has many programs for those who want to help. Along with raising needed funds, guests can sponsor a dog or cat as part of the Red Collar program. Dogs along the East coast are evaluated and taken in for medical help and sterilization. Once healed, these dogs are returned to the streets with a special red collar. These dogs are monitored by Island Dog and given fresh water and food daily. Island Dog says is costs about $100 to turn a homeless dog into a red Collar dog and costs around $400 a year to sustain them. Patrons can sponsor a Red Collar dog on the organization’s website and help directly save a life.

People can also volunteer to be foster pet parents, even if they don’t live on the island. Pets can be flown to a city served by the Puerto Rican Airport and take care of animals until they are ready to be adopted or can adopt them themselves. Foster parents are given first choice on the animals in their care. Other ways to help include assisting dogs traveling to the mainland and getting them to their new homes.

However, Block wants to make it clear, what she needs most is money. If you can help, here is the organization’s donation page.

Photo by Island Dog