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Happy Beginnings for Strays in Puerto Rico

By Twig Mowatt, guest blogger with All Sato Rescue

Valiente, a 28-pound Chihuahua/border collie mix, was found tied to a trash can on a busy street in San Juan. His owner had dumped the dog there after he failed as a watch dog. (Valiente is a bit of a softy, who almost never barks.) It’s the sort of sad scene that happens every day in Puerto Rico, where companion animal abandonment, neglect, and abuse is widespread and largely tolerated.

Estimates place the number of stray dogs (called Satos in Puerto Rican slang) at above 150,000. Injured, diseased, and emaciated dogs can be found roaming most streets, beaches, mountainsides, and commercial centers. In fact, some areas, such as Dead Dog Beach, have become notorious dumping grounds for unwanted pups.

Edilia Vazquez, President and Co-founder of All Sato Rescue, with one of her rescues who is now in a great home. (Photo Credit: All Sato Rescue.)

While most of these Satos end up dying horrible deaths, Valiente was lucky. He now lives like a king outside Boston, in a home where he is lavished with attention, has a bed in every room, and wears sweaters in the winter. He is one of about 2,000 Satos that are rescued off the streets, nursed back to health, and then rehomed in the mainland every year by a handful of dedicated individuals and a few small animal welfare groups.

While some of these groups focus on the root issues behind the problems of animal overpopulation, abuse, and neglect on the island, others dedicate themselves entirely to rescue and rehoming through a network of no-kill shelters in the Northeast.

Founded in 1996, the Save a Sato organization was probably the first group to send their rescued and rehabilitated dogs on commercial flights to Boston. Since then, other groups have joined the effort, including Amigos de los AnimalesIsland Dog, All Sato Rescue, and Manos por Patas. The arrangement works beautifully on both ends: Satos that would otherwise die on the streets get great homes, and shelters that would otherwise not have enough adoptable dogs to meet demand get a steady stream of cutie-pies.

The reason it works so well is that the spay/neuter message has been so successfully incorporated in MA, NH, VT, ME, and other Northeast states that there are very few litters of puppies being surrendered to shelters here. Faced with empty kennels and lines of hopeful adopters, most shelters have opted to reach out to rescue organizations in other parts of the country where overpopulation is still a problem. (People often don’t realize that Puerto Rico is part of the United States.)

That means that every week, beagle and hound mixes are being driven to MA from VA, GA, and TN, just as Satos are being flown in from Puerto Rico. After nearly 15 years of Sato importation, New England is surely home to the highest concentration of these former strays of anywhere off the island. And they have a devoted following. Satos tend to be on the small side (under 30 pounds) and they come in many unusual combinations, just like Valiente. Chihuahua genes are pretty common, as are enormous ear spans, stubby legs, and a penchant for sun bathing. Their gratitude at being given a second chance is often palpable.

Each Sato is scrupulously vetted for both health and behavioral issues before it is deemed adoptable, and each one arrives with its medical record, as well as a letter from the rescuer that explains where the dog was found and asks for photos and news from its new family. Rescuers, like the lovely woman who plucked Valiente off the busy street, say it’s these notes and photos that keep her motivated to work so hard.

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