CHERRYFIELD — More than a year ago, Hurricane Maria slammed into the island of Puerto Rico. Nearly 3,000 people are estimated to have been killed and food, water and medical care were scarce for months after. The island’s power grid was essentially wiped out, and millions of Puerto Ricans went without electricity for months.
While it’s easy to see the pictures of desolate, abandoned neighborhoods and imagine the people who were displaced, one often forgets the animals that lived there too. Some, though, have found refuge and a potential new life 2,833 miles away in the Downeast region.
So far, 53 dogs have traveled from the Caribbean to Maine through a partnership between The Ark Animal Shelter in Cherryfield and All-Sato Rescue in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
“We started pulling them in on Sept. 30, and since then we’ve gotten 10 adult dogs and 30 puppies,” said The Ark’s assistant manager, April Rice. “Another 13 dogs touched down in Maine and were retrieved from the Portland International Jetport after Thanksgiving.”
The mixed-breed dogs, called “satos” in Puerto Rican slang, include Nicholas, a Corgi mix, whose mother was hit by a car. Many of the satos were picked up as strays or from litters left at roadside all over San Juan. Once rescued by All-Sato, the dogs were put into foster homes to assess their behavior and compatibility with humans and other dogs or cats. The dogs’ health also is restored and the animals are neutered and administered all necessary shots before leaving Puerto Rico.
“What’s really great is that they’ll come in and the foster homes will write up things about them and let us know all the details,” said Rice, holding up a small packet with pictures and a paw-print signature. “We were a little leery when we first started that a lot of the dogs would be harder to place with families. But once people see them, we’ll get 30 applications for one dog.”
The Ark was put in touch with All-Sato by Ark board member Susanne Bussell.
“She had adopted a dog from Puerto Rico a couple of years ago, and she had mentioned the possibility of helping them out with the overabundance of animals that had been displaced,” Rice said.
In the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, thousands of domestic pets were made homeless in Puerto Rico. Shelters and veterinary clinics were destroyed or flooded, and some did not reopen. More and more stray dogs were born because fewer and fewer were being neutered. And many displaced people were forced to give up their pets because they simply couldn’t afford them or had no where to keep them.
Transporting dogs from San Juan to Cherryfield is a costly and lengthy process, but All-Sato coordinates and covers the air travel cost from Puerto Rico. The dogs fly from San Juan to Miami, then from Miami to Boston or Portland. The Ark picks them up from there and drives them the rest of the way.
“They load them up in these big plastic crates to go on the plane, and they stay in those until they make it here,” Rice said. “The last shipment I picked up, they were quiet the whole time, nobody barked. But then when they get here they’re so happy to be out and to see you.”
One of those happy pups is Antonio, a miniature pinscher or “minpin,” whose owner Linda Perrin calls him a “good little studio dog.” Perrin and her husband, Ken, own Atlantic Art Glass in Ellsworth.
“When I heard that The Ark had the puppies, I thought I’d just go and see what they’re all about,” said Perrin. “I didn’t even necessarily think that we were going to get one, but then this little guy jumped in my lap.”
Antonio is about 4 months old. During the day he can be found curled up on his bed under the Perrin’s glass kiln.
“He’s very mellow, he gets along with everyone who comes in,” Perrin said. “He lies under the kiln, but if we’re working on something all I have to do is say ‘out of the studio’ and he’ll just walk over to the couch.”
Antonio’s a fairly small dog, like most of the ones taken in by The Ark.
“For us right now, we are taking dogs that are, like, 30 pounds, because we can place them in exercise yards, and we can take in more to help them out,” Rice said.
Another shipment of displaced dogs from Puerto Rico was due in last week, but a few already here still hadn’t been placed. They include Mountain Cur-mix siblings Arlet and Tanit, terrier-mix Benji and Lab-mix Santiago.
While Antonio isn’t the biggest fan of the snow, other Puerto Rican adoptees have taken the radical climate change in stride.
“I figured they would freak out at the snow,” Rice said. “But a lot of them will go out and run and run and run in it. They adapt pretty quick.”