It’s growing increasingly common to see dogs available for adoption in the United States who come from outside the mainland, typically from places with big problems with pet overpopulation. For various reasons, their original locations may not have the financial resources or the number of adopters that are available stateside. These dogs have often lived through cruelty and neglect, and have undertaken a long journey to be united with new families who can give them the safety and love they deserve.
Florida-based Big Dog Ranch Rescue (BDRR) is one organization carrying out this kind of dog rescue, in addition to the rescues they do closer to home. BDRR is currently planning a huge and ambitious rescue mission in Puerto Rico, and I recently had a conversation with their Marketing & Fundraising Coordinator, Niki Friedman, to discuss why and how they will be transporting over 800 dogs from Puerto Rico to Florida, and what changes need to happen in Puerto Rico so that this type of rescue is no longer necessary.
Dylan Forest: Big Dog Ranch Rescue is currently raising funds to bring over 800 dogs from Puerto Rico to the mainland United States. What went into the decision to do this project specifically in Puerto Rico? Why are dogs there in particular need of help?
Niki Friedman: First, the need for life-saving work is everywhere. Puerto Rico, a territory of the United States, is often overlooked for federal funding as well as private funding. They lack the resources that we have in the mainland US because they are an island. Poverty, lack of education about proper treatment of animals, and little to no protection from hurricane season and the impact of COVID-19 has left the animals of this beautiful island with few options for survival. We are fortunate on the mainland in that when there is a hurricane, we move our dogs into hundreds of eager fosters. In addition, when COVID-19 hit, our adoptions skyrocketed. On the islands, the effect is the exact opposite and in this time of crisis they need our help.
BDRR has rescued dogs from several different organizations in Puerto Rico in the past, but this huge group of dogs will all be coming from one place, a dog rescue called Santuario Canita. Can you tell me about Canita, the work that they do, and why BDRR is bringing over so many dogs from them?
Santuario Canita is in Guayama, a rural area of Puerto Rico. The owner, Carmen, and her husband work tirelessly with a small staff to care for the precious heartbeats. Even with the little resources they have, Carmen currently has almost 800 dogs in need of medical attention, food, care, and loving homes. We want to do everything we can to help her operate more effectively. Taking about half the dogs out of the rescue gets the animals into loving homes and gives the rest of them a fighting chance. We have just learned that Carmen must close the sanctuary by the end of the year due to her failing health. We are doing everything in our power to raise funds to bring these dogs to safety.
I imagine a large-scale rescue like this is a huge undertaking with many people involved and lots of moving parts. Can you walk me through how that journey might look for an individual dog, from the sanctuary in Puerto Rico to being adopted stateside?
The selection process begins at Santuario Canita. To rescue as many dogs as possible, our team visits the sanctuary to select dogs based on factors such as: Are they are able to share a room with other dogs? Our dogs live cage-free in rooms with two or three other dogs. Do they need urgent medical attention? Are they friendly with people? etc. Once the dogs are selected rescue partners in Puerto Rico get them vaccinated, give them flea and tick medicine, get their health certificates and bathe them.
The Big Dog Ranch Rescue team flies over hundreds of crates, builds them, adds water bowls, prints identifying kennel cards for each dog and then takes all supplies on the hour and a half drive to Guayama. Once onsite, the crates are built, the hundred or more dogs are loaded, and then they are on their journey to Air Flamenco in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Once there they are walked, fed, and their crates are cleaned. They spend the night with volunteers and then the team returns at 5 a.m. to begin the loading process.
Every inch of the plane is utilized to safely transport as many dogs as possible. This requires careful planning ahead of time as well as during the loading process. Once aboard the plane two staff members take the flight home with them to ensure they stay cool and calm the entire time. When they land on the ground dozens of volunteers greet them, load them into the receiving rescue van, and they are off to Big Dog Ranch Rescue and to find their new family. At Big Dog Ranch Rescue all dogs must quarantine for at least ten days to prevent spreading any illness, clean them, get to know them, and prepare them for adoption.
One of my dogs is a rescued former street dog from another country. While things are great now, his adjustment to his radically different new life with us was much more difficult for him than I ever expected. Is there anything different or more difficult about placing dogs from other countries, where they may have never lived in a home with a human family?
The difference in placing a street dog into a home rather than a puppy or a dog accustomed to home life is simply that they must be properly trained. All rescue dogs have a story and for stray dogs, living on the streets is just part of that story. They may not be potty trained, or adjusted to walking on a leash, or even be immediately receptive to human affection, but as we all know when a rescue dog feels safe, loved, and secure they begin to come out of their shell. We have seen some amazing transformations take place. Dogs that once hid in the corner of their bunk rooms are now running up to greet newcomers in the home. We do not want to downplay that many dogs from the streets need extra training.
Transporting dogs to the mainland US is a bandaid on a big problem in Puerto Rico with pet overpopulation. What changes need to happen in Puerto Rico to fix this problem so that fewer animals need to be sent elsewhere?
Pet overpopulation in Puerto Rico is indicative of a larger problem that stems from lack of education on proper pet care, including the importance of spay/neuter. Education is truly the only way to end dog homelessness, abuse, and neglect. Additionally, Big Dog Ranch Rescue has outfitted a small spay/neuter van that will be sent to the island to access rural areas and provide no-cost surgeries and provide education on the importance of this practice.
Featured image: a dog on the street in Ponce, Puerto Rico. Image credit Epi Ren, CC BY-SA 2.0.