Janey’s recap is consistent with what we know about animal rescue on the island. Humane Society International quickly mobilized in the days after Hurricane Maria. In the event of a natural disaster in the U.S., it works through its national affiliate and also partners with other organizations around the country—not just to support local shelters that have been impacted in natural disasters, but also to evacuate homeless animals and get them placed in emergency shelters around the country.
In the days before and after Maria, many families and pet owners were forced to evacuate their homes quickly, which meant having to leave their beloved animals behind. Local shelters on the island took in some animals but were inundated and could not shelter them all. In addition, many shelters were badly damaged by Maria, as chronicled by national media at the time.
“The Associated Press reports that Puerto Rico’s shelters have received hundreds of dogs and cats—even a pet pig and a fighting cock—after their owners decided to leave the island due to economic hardships or opted to forsake their animals as they try to recover from the tempest. The shelters already faced problems housing stray animals even before the hurricane that pummeled the U.S. territory in September.
Some of Puerto Rico’s five government-run shelters and more than 30 nonprofit animal centers lost their roofs, food and cages, but the state of these facilities has not deterred pet owners from leaving them there. AP reported that animals are being thrown over the shelters’ fences, are tied to gates or left with money under their collars.”
While hundreds of dogs and cats have been rescued from the mainland island of Puerto Rico and Vieques, Vieques is unique in that it also has a significant population of wild horses. While those horses have always been a beloved part of the community and a part of what draws tourists to the island, caring for them now poses a challenge, both for the community and for rescuers.
According to Sára Varsa, senior director of the animal rescue team at the Humane Society of the United States, “The wild horses are having to reposition themselves. Now that the vegetation has been ripped up, they’re having to venture out into different areas to search for food and water … which increases their ability to get injured because they’re getting on the roads.
“We know that horses have perished,” Varsa added. “I can’t tell you how many, but they definitely found animals deceased after the storm and on the roadways, which is devastating.”
In numerous ways, this crisis has forced everyday, ordinary people to do the extraordinary to help their friends, families, neighbors and animals on the island. To that end, the challenge of caring for Puerto Rico’s abandoned animals has not been limited to the Human Society or other partner organizations around the country. Social media has been an important way for people who find abandoned pets to get them placed into temporary or permanent homes and those on the island are making good use of it. It’s also been a way that people have been able to reunite with their lost animals.
While in San Juan, I spoke with one volunteer, Michelle Ukelele, who had been helping to coordinate logistics between government and non-profit organizations on the island. She arrived a few days after the hurricane and described her role as “connecting people and logistics and resources.” During our conversation, she talked about the increased animal abandonment on the island and how she’s relied on the help of many animal lovers—which she suspected had grown in number since the hurricane. Social media has been the primary vehicle for volunteers like Michelle to communicate need and organize placement and response for animals. By the end of January, Michelle had worked to place over 71 dogs in her time in Puerto Rico.
In addition to individuals doing this work, there are new groups that have emerged in order to find shelter for animals in need and they, too, are using social media to spread the word. Saving Ukelele is one such group. This is a recent post, translated into English, asking for volunteers to foster a pup that was found on the street.
Other organizations based on the U.S. mainland have been using social media to convey information about adoption events featuring Puerto Rican rescue animals and to promote the good news when one is adopted.
Though many organizations and people have stepped in to take care of the animals of Puerto Rico, the situation is far from over. There is still a need for reuniting owners and pets whenever possible, helping animals in shelters to find their forever homes and providing veterinary health care and support to residents across the island. As Governor Rosselló noted in his executive order, it is a “critical time of recovery and rebuilding” and many animals and owners have been impacted by Hurricane Maria for the foreseeable future.
To learn more or to help, contact the following resources which have been working to help animals across the island:
Humane Society of the United States
Vieques Humane Society and Animal Rescue
Lucky Dog Animal Rescue
Best Friends Animal Rescue
St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center