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The Hartford Courant

New Beginnings, Happy Endings

By Matthew Hay Brown | Puerto Rico Correspondent

October 9, 2002
Copyright © 2002 The Hartford Courant. All rights reserved. 

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Here she was Lupita, a Chihuahua-pug mix abandoned with her littermates at a shopping center, left to scrounge food from garbage cans and sleep on the hot pavement -- a puppy headed for a hard life and an early death.

In Connecticut, she's now Libby, the affectionate, energetic, pampered family dog of the Nobles of Brookfield, where she wrestles with the kids and the cats, trails the horses through the woods, and snuggles in between Alec and Liz at night.

"Libby is the most awesome dog," says Liz Noble, who adopted the 11-month-old earlier this year. "She turned out to be the little girl of my life."

The lucky dog is one of the thousands that have been rescued from the streets of this U.S. commonwealth by a group of volunteers who catch them, bathe and feed them, take them for veterinary treatment and vaccinations, and fly them north for adoption on the mainland.

Through local shelters, the Puerto Rican dogs have found homes throughout the Northeast, the Midwest and the South. But organizers of Save-a-Sato say the dogs they have rescued-- 25 to 35 a week -- are just a fraction of the strays roaming Puerto Rico's highways, abandoned buildings and vacant lots.

"What we do is not a solution," says Doris Vita, the group's treasurer. "We just try to help the dogs."

Pronounced "SAW-Toe," the word is Puerto Rican slang for a mixed-breed stray. The San Juan-based Caribbean Recycling Foundation estimates, there are about 100,000 loose on the island, most abandoned pets or their offspring.

"That's a huge number," says foundation President Nicholas Apostol.

In a tropical climate free of natural predators, Apostol says, the strays multiply in the street, where they fall prone to starvation, disease or cars. Their carcasses may lie along highways or city streets for days.

"When I go to Florida, I don't see dead animals by the side of the road," Apostol says. "People here are used to it. Then here comes Mrs. Jones from Connecticut, absolutely horrified by what she sees, and people look at her, asking what's the problem?"

Apostol and others involved in animal welfare blame a variety of causes: poverty, ambivalence to sterilizing or euthanizing animals, the dearth of veterinarians and shelters on the island, and the lack of government regulation and licensing for breeders, dealers and dogs. No government agency is charged with animal control, and there are only four municipal shelters on the island of 3.9 million residents.

Chantal Robles, an airline ticket agent in San Juan, and Karen Fagerbach, a Drug Enforcement Administration agent then stationed in Puerto Rico, kept running into each other at their veterinarian's office. Independently, they were bringing street dogs in for treatment in the hope of finding families to take them.

"We started talking, and we thought, wouldn't it be great if we could make some contacts with some shelters who could take the dogs?" Robles says.

In 1996, the women formed Save-a-Sato. Gathering like-minded volunteers, they began capturing strays, nursing them to health and readying them for the journey north. The group has worked with "no-kill" shelters -- those that keep pets until they are adopted -- in Connecticut, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New England, Illinois and Florida.

Save-a-Sato is one of at least two groups that send strays from the island to the mainland. The Puerto Rican Animal Welfare Society, known as PAWS, ships dogs to organizations including the Animal Shelter in Winter Garden and Adopt-a-Dog in Greenwich, Conn.

Since accepting the first batch of satos in March, the Danbury Animal Welfare Society in Connecticut has found homes for about 100, many popular smaller dogs and puppies.

"It's been wonderful for us," says society Vice President Kathleen Reynolds. "There's definitely a demand for the Puerto Rican dogs. It seems to have benefited our local dogs, too. There's more interest and traffic to our shelter."

After losing her Jack Russell-beagle mix of 19 years, Bonnie Johnston picked up Lady at the Sterling Animal Shelter in Massachusetts in June. Vita had found the dog running along a highway in Puerto Rico.

"She is just a love," says Johnston, who lives with her mother in Acton, Mass. "Any time you take in a stray, you have to be careful because you don't know what she's been through. But she has fit right in. She is protective of us, and she is trying to understand English."

Johnston says Lady came with papers describing what is known of her background, including checkups from two veterinarians and her vaccination history, and medicines.

"I don't have to worry about any surprises," she says.

Lady, a 1- or 2-year-old of indeterminate breed, weighed 15 lbs. when Johnston took her in. She has filled out to 22.

Robles says the work of Save-a-Sato and groups like it will not solve the problem of stray dogs in Puerto Rico. She advocates public education about spaying and neutering pets. Apostol, whose foundation has trained civil defense officers in animal control, adds that revenues from licensing breeders, dealers and dogs could pay for real animal control officers and more shelters.

The 50 dogs caged behind the split-level house on a quiet street in the Rio Piedras section of San Juan greet a stranger with a chorus of barks.

Gloria Martí introduces the crew. This one was found at a shopping center in Cabo Rojo. That one was stranded on a hot roof in Bayamón.

Here Martí will treat mange, monitor feedings and give medicines. On average, it costs about $100 to prepare a dog for adoption, and another $80 for the flight to the mainland.

Vita, the treasurer, says the organization receives about $2,500 per month in donations, and volunteers often pay at least some of the expenses incurred by dogs they have rescued. She says the organization needs more volunteers and more cash.

"We have to keep a low profile because we can't handle all the demand," she says. "We have an endless supply of dogs."

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