In Puerto Rico, volunteers save animals after the passage of Hurricane Fiona

As Hurricane Fiona moved toward Puerto Rico, Ángel Vega was very worried when he left the animal shelter where he worked for seven years. They had all done what they could, but he knew that the dog they called Samson would not survive the storm.

Dellymar Bernal Martínez, president and CEO of the sanctuary, had looked at the forecast and knew they had to move the shelter’s 250 dogs and cats to the second floor. She was right: Parts of the island received 30 inches of rain in the hurricane, which caused a total blackout on the island, massive flooding and landslides. A week after the hurricane made landfall, most of Puerto Rico is still without power or water.

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The humanitarian crisis is growing. And at the San Francisco de Asís Animal Sanctuary in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, a small group of determined humans are trying to save as many animal lives as possible. Over the blare of generators, barking dogs and a constant chorus of local coquis (frogs), they clean and care for the animals.

Samson, a pit bull-mastiff mix at an animal sanctuary in Puerto Rico, is afraid of thunder and is not good with other animals.  He was unable to be moved to the second floor of the shelter to escape flooding from the hurricane.
Samson, a pit bull-mastiff mix at an animal sanctuary in Puerto Rico, is afraid of thunder and is not good with other animals. He was unable to be moved to the second floor of the shelter to escape flooding from the hurricane.Courtesy San Francisco de Asís Animal Sanctuary

“This is the second time the river has reached the first floor,” says HOY Martínez in his sanctuary, where the stale smells of dust and stagnant water fill the air. “The first time it was Hurricane Maria, and this time the flooding was much, much worse.”

They moved all the animals from the sanctuary to the second floor all except Samson. The pit bull mastiff mix cannot be around other animals.

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“He’s very picky about people and extremely scared of lightning and thunder,” Vega explained. The staff knew they couldn’t put Samson on the second floor with the others, for fear he might escape his kennel in the chaos of the hurricane and hurt another animal.

Just hours before the hurricane hit, staff fed all the dogs and cats and gave them their medication, Martinez said. They found temporary foster homes for 30 animals, moved the rest to the second floor of the sanctuary and, in desperation, took some home. But no one could accept a pit bull/mastiff mix with aggression issues.

“We had nowhere to put it, so it was going to have to stay on the first floor,” Vega said. down The moment I walked out of here, I knew if I really left the dog behind, I was going to die.”

The first floor of the sanctuary where many of the dogs are usually housed, days after the hurricane completely flooded it.
The first floor of the sanctuary where many of the dogs are usually housed, days after the hurricane completely flooded it.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

Once home, Vega said he began “calling everyone he knew,” looking for someone with space to house Samson during the storm. She in tears she tasted one more person a friend who owns a bakery.

“He had a storage area in the back of his bakery, filled with bread ovens and bakery stuff,” he explained. “He said if you can clean it up, we can put it in there. So we started to clean everything up, and at 8:00 the night before the hurricane, we took Samson there.”

“He’s still there, he’s alive,” Vega said. “If he had been here (in the sanctuary), he would have drowned. So I’m very happy.”

Ángel Vega, who maintains the sanctuary and has worked at the shelter for 7 years, points out how high the flood waters reached inside the first floor.
Ángel Vega, who maintains the sanctuary and has worked at the shelter for 7 years, points out how high the flood waters reached inside the first floor.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

All of the shelter’s animals survived the hurricane and have made it through the week since, as volunteers and staff struggle to care for them without power or running water. Now, they are bracing for a second crisis, bracing for the wave of strays that follows a hurricane.

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“We learned during Hurricane Maria that there are going to be a lot of pets on the streets, because people are losing their homes and probably going to lose their jobs,” Martínez explained. “We need to make room, even if we lose the first floor entirely, because there will be pets that will need us.”

A volunteer holds a rescued puppy after Hurricane Fiona.
A volunteer holds a rescued puppy after Hurricane Fiona.Daniela Campoamor

After Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, stray animals flooded shelters across Puerto Rico, which were already struggling to handle hundreds of thousands of stray animals, according to the Associated Press. In 2008, a new law in Puerto Rico prohibited animal cruelty and animal abandonment, but repeated natural disasters have made it difficult for even well-intentioned people to care for their pets.

The sanctuary has already welcomed back the animals left behind because of Fiona. a litter of 5 week old puppies that were abandoned on the street. Their little bellies were bloated, the pups were malnourished, severely dehydrated and riddled with parasites.

Four sleeping 5-week-old puppies rescued from the streets after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico.
Four sleeping 5-week-old puppies rescued from the streets after Hurricane Fiona hit Puerto Rico.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

A group of about 20 veterinarians and students is helping sanctuary staff clear debris, dispose of damaged property, assess the animals’ medical needs and provide treatment.

The group also prepared a group of animals. including rescued puppies for transportation to the continental US, providing them with the necessary vaccinations and paperwork so they could board a plane for Florida on Saturday, September 24.

“I felt very overwhelmed by the situation,” Isabel Medina, a 17-year-old veterinary student and volunteer, told TODAY. “Seeing all these helpless animals looking for a real owner it was devastating.”

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A group of volunteer veterinarians and students care for the animals.
A group of volunteer veterinarians and students care for the animals.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

Medina still does not have electricity or running water at his home in Moca, Puerto Rico, where he lives with his father and 3-year-old sister. Still, she says it was important to her to show up at the shrine and give what she could.

“Animals have needs, just like humans,” he said. “It’s hard to live in these circumstances and for them to normalize… For them to run around and feel helpless during these kinds of situations is heartbreaking.”

More than a foot of water still blocks the path to the no-kill sanctuary, and volunteers and staff have to navigate wobbly power lines and broken trees to get there.

The road to the San Francisco de Asís Animal Sanctuary in Hormigueros, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, five days after Hurricane Fiona made landfall.
The road to the San Francisco de Asís Animal Sanctuary in Hormigueros, Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, five days after Hurricane Fiona made landfall.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

The first time staff returned to the shelter after the hurricane was about 48 hours from the last time they saw the animals. The National Guard led them (with some persuasion) through floodwaters that threatened to inundate their truck.

“We were so happy and relieved when we saw everyone alive,” added Martinez. “We call it a storm menu we gave them canned food and sausages and all the animals were very happy. We have Ray, a heavy dog, and he was very happy with the menu.”

A sanctuary staff member holds a 3-week-old kitten that was found abandoned in an oil barrel at an auto shop.
A sanctuary staff member holds a 3-week-old kitten that was found abandoned in an oil barrel at an auto shop.Danielle Campoamor / TODAY

Martinez says he hasn’t slept since the hurricane hit. Still, she is determined to continue and restore the shrine, which was first founded by her mother. The shelter now lives in a former rum distillery, where it has survived three hurricanes, multiple earthquakes, and countless storms.

“I don’t have human babies,” said Martinez, who also cares for two paralyzed kittens who were kicked so hard by someone that they severed their spinal cords. “But I have a lot of fur babies.”

Despite the total devastation that the sanctuary and the entire island has suffered, Vega says he is grateful.

“For people to come and help us fills me with joy,” he said. “This is nothing. I know if we can recover from Maria, we can recover from this.”

The problem of stray animals in Puerto Rico

  • According to the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, it is estimated that half a million stray dogs and 1 million stray cats roam the streets of the island.
  • After Hurricane Maria, almost 200,000 Puerto Ricans fled their homes temporarily or permanently and unemployment reached its highest point in 11 years, leaving many people unable to care for their pets.
  • San Francisco de Asís Animal Sanctuary in Hormigueros is accepting donations via PayPal, Amazon Wish List and at [email protected]