For years, those of us who work on animal welfare issues in the U.S. Commonwealth of Puerto Rico have wondered what it would take to get the attention of the island’s governor, the police, the courts, the media and the rest of the country. The daily atrocities—from abandonment and gross neglect to beatings, shootings, burnings, machete attacks, poisonings and more—carried out on dogs, cats and even horses would be top stories anywhere else. How much worse would it have to get?
We found out in October. That was when municipal employees and workers from a private animal control agency, hired by the mayor of Barceloneta to rid three public housing projects of animals, seized about 80 family pets from their homes. What happened next is hard to fathom. Some of these animals—mostly dogs—were thrown to their deaths off a 50-foot bridge. (Three of the animal control workers go on trial for animal cruelty in May.)
Suddenly, people were paying attention. The “pet massacre” was news around the world. Organizations like mine, the Save a Sato Foundation (sato is slang for “stray dog”), fielded e-mail from across the U.S., Europe and even Australia. “This inhumane brutality is making your country appear savage and brutal in the eyes of the world,” was a typical sentiment.
We urged everyone to write to Puerto Rico Governor Aníbal Acevedo Vilá to beg him to find a solution to the deplorable suffering of the island’s animals. An online petition demanded the same thing; the goal was to reach 1,000 signatures—to date, 51,000 people have signed it. Acevedo Vilá, who has demonstrated a shocking lack of compassion during his years in office, answered every letter the same way: This was an isolated incident.
But he knows better. For years, rescuers from Manos por Patas and Amigos de los Animales have been tending to abandoned and brutalized animals on a strip of eastern coastline known as “Dead Dog Beach.” Acevedo Vilá has been sent the evidence: photos of the remains of dogs stuffed into garbage bags. (The situation north at Los Machos beach is just as bad.)
All this abuse carries a financial toll. In 2002, the nonprofit Puerto Rico Hotel & Tourism Association, a long-time proponent of addressing the issue, estimated that the island lost some $15 million a year “as a consequence of the stray animal problem.” The Barceloneta incident has surely sent this figure soaring.
At first, it seemed as though something positive might happen. The government-run Puerto Rican Tourism Company (PRTC)—famous for sending glossy brochures to tourists who wrote to complain about animal suffering—announced the formation of a coalition to address the problem. What emerged was a plan long on animal control (which means massive roundups and killings) and short on education and sterilization. Another problem was the PRTC’s budget for this effort: zero.
Another entity, the government’s Office of Animal Control, created last summer after years of haggling, could have seized the moment to effect real change. But it’s so disempowered that it doesn’t even have permission to use its meager $1.5 million in seed funding to fulfill its mandate of creating animal services in all 78 municipalities.
In the meantime, rescuers report seeing the massive dog sweeps they feared, especially near tourist spots. We know that not every dog can be saved. But, without addressing the root issue—overpopulation—these sweeps will only be followed by many more. Raising public awareness about sterilization is critical, as is making the procedure widely available.
The newly formed Coalition for the Wellbeing of Pets (CWP) is trying to do that. This mix of animal welfare groups, vets and shelters is seeking a waiver from the Veterinary Medicine Examining Board to allow off-island vets to conduct an initial spay/neuter project that could become a model for the future. (A ban on off-island vets has thwarted many earlier attempts.)
Puerto Rico also needs to raise its citizens’ awareness about animal welfare. There are shelters on the island, but with euthanasia rates topping 90 percent, people refuse to take their unwanted animals there. Instead, they prefer to dump pets on the streets, where there is at least the illusion of survival. But it is an illusion—stray animals suffer horribly.