What I learned about homeless animals from Hurricane Maria


By Scott Smith

On September 20, 2017, an enormous hurricane pummeled Puerto Rico and devastated much of the island. I live in Puerto Rico now and that’s where I was when Maria hit. Sixteen years earlier, on 9/11, I was living in New York. After experiencing both tragedies, I was struck by the similarities between them. In both situations, I went to bed in one life and woke up in another.

Hurricane Maria also got me thinking about stray dogs and cats and what they go through every day. Let me explain.

When Maria’s winds died down, Puerto Rico was without electricity, internet service, and in many parts of the island, running water. Things I’d taken for granted like food, water, and medical care became luxuries that were hard to come by. Most stores were closed. The ones that remained open only accepted cash, but the banking system was offline and no one could get cash. It was a situation reminiscent of the Great Depression, when people with money in the bank couldn’t withdraw and spend it, and the whole economy ground to a halt.

Streets that were once well lit and safe became dark, dangerous scenes of looting and random acts of violence. Many people had to sleep with one eye open—if they got any sleep at all. The situation became so dangerous that the governor was compelled to proclaim an island-wide dusk-to-dawn curfew.

Just days after the storm, I was waiting in a long line at a grocery store, hoping that it wouldn’t run out of food and that I’d have enough cash to get what I needed for my family. I had a revelation: this is how homeless dogs and cats live every day. They lead precarious lives. They go days without adequate food and water. They don’t get medical care. They’re in constant danger and have to be watchful to the point of paranoia.

I was living like that now. So were nearly three million Puerto Ricans. We had become an island of strays.

The author with a fellow Hurricane Maria survivor and his dog at a local hotel

I’ve always had a special connection to animals. I’ve been personally involved in a number of animal rescues. I’m a human dad to four dogs, all of whom were rescued from the streets. I’m sad to say there are many, many more animals where my dogs came from. What I went through for several weeks following Hurricane Maria, they go through every day, with little hope that things will get better.

As if the tragedy of stray dogs and cats in Puerto Rico was not horrific enough before Maria hit, it became even worse afterward. Approximately 300,000 people left Puerto Rico in response to the storm. Many of them were unable to take their animals with them. As Maria was bearing down on the island, a friend of mine witnessed heartbreaking scenes at the San Juan airport, where families had to abandon their beloved animals. To make matters worse, the federal government banned animals who weighed more than 20 pounds from air travel. The policy was intended to free up cargo space for much-needed relief supplies, but it had the unintended effect of causing another 2,000 pets to be abandoned on the streets.

For most of us, there was no way around the devastation of Hurricane Maria. It dragged on and on for months, and will likely take years to completely dissipate. Right now, the extraordinary hardships that all of us humans on the island endured due to Hurricane Maria have largely disappeared, but the pain continues for Puerto Rico’s homeless cats and dogs.

Rescue dog Levi, who was hit by a car on December 30th, 2017 in Toa Baja, Puerto Rico

I witnessed a tragic example of that pain last winter. I got a call about a dog who had been hit by a car and badly injured. When I arrived at the scene, I found a terrified animal who was in tremendous pain and who was unable to move his hind legs. It took three hours, but we finally got him into a crate and to the Veterinaria 24/7 in Pinero.

As it turned out, this poor dog’s back legs were paralyzed. He will never walk again. Fortunately, he was adopted by a loving family in Wisconsin that is giving him the best life possible. Other dogs and cats aren’t so lucky. It’s depressingly common to see the remains of dogs and cats who’ve been hit and killed by cars in Puerto Rico. To try to combat this problem, I began a video campaign I called Drive With Compassion. It’s something, but it’s not enough to solve this problem.

Having lived through a catastrophic storm like Hurricane Maria has given me new insight into the lives of stray animals. I now have some firsthand knowledge of what their lives are like. Having welcomed stray dogs off the Puerto Rican streets and into my heart, I can attest to how just one person can save a life.

I encourage everyone to become the person who makes that kind of difference in a stray dog or cat’s life. There are some terrific organizations here in Puerto Rico that support that mission. I urge you all to help and support them: All Sato Rescue, Alianza Pro Rescate Animales, Yes We Can-ine, Rabito Kontento, The Humane Society of Puerto Rico, PR Animals, Animalitos de Dios PR and Brownie Blondie Foundation.

Remember what I learned: hurricanes like Maria are (hopefully) a once-in-a-lifetime occurrence. What the strays of Puerto Rico experience goes on day after day after day without end. Only people who are able and willing to step up can help stop it.

The author with Levi 

Featured image: Levi using his wheelchair in Puerto Rico. This image and all images in this story credit Scott Smith.

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