I’ve been working for Camp Canine for five years, and for Animal Lighthouse Rescue for just over one. In both cases, I’m the Social Media Manager. It’s my job to give the parents of our campers an insight into what ‘a day in the life’ looks like for their pups. And for Animal Lighthouse Rescue, I feel humbled to be a part of finding dogs their furever homes. When I was given the opportunity to fly to Puerto Rico to visit ALR’s sister-shelter, I jumped at it. I knew that ALR’s followers would be fascinated – just as I was – to see the real, hands-on rescue work of our incredible team in Puerto Rico.
It started with an early-morning flight from New York City to San Juan, and then an uber ride from the airport to where I would be meeting Liza, the director of El Faro de los Animales. Liza is a legend among those of us involved in the NYC-side of Animal Lighthouse; we find the forever homes for the dogs that she waded through rivers, jumped out of cars or macheted herself through a mangrove to rescue. (More on that machete later.) She greeted me with food and fresh Puerto Rican beer, and let me regroup before we began the hour-and-a-half ride from San Juan to Humacao where El Faro is.
The car ride was beautiful: bright blue seas on one side, and waving palm trees on the next. We were chatting about what I could expect from the weekend when Liza abruptly pulled her van over to the side of the highway. “Wait here,” she told me without an explanation, and then she jumped out of the van and into traffic. I watched her in the rear view window – she dodged cars and walked about 40 yards back before she disappeared into the brush on the side of the road. When she came back into view, she was holding two dogs – one in each arm.
We didn’t have any crates in the van, so I offered to ride in the back with them. One was a squatty, short-haired boy with pointy ears and the other was a medium-sized Yorkie-mix. Her fur was incredibly matted and smelly, but the boy who was trying to mate with her didn’t seem to mind. We named him Hunter for the one-track mind he had for the girl who was in heat, and she I got to name Bunny. It was my first-ever rescue that I witnessed, so – Liza told me – my first-ever dog to name!
The rest of the day was spent settling into Liza’s home. She welcomes and hosts volunteers from all over the states; while I was there, Top Dog Tania (also the Chairman of ALR’s Board) and Karie, ALR’s Director of Operations were there with me, as was the incredible Nicole from Paws4Survival who makes her way to Puerto Rico monthly and runs a rescue out of New England. But we weren’t the only inhabitants of the house: during the time I was there, the dogs who were also staying in the house reached 18! It was customary that each guest took a dog (or two or three or four) into their room at night to keep an eye on them. Of these dogs, 8 are Liza’s permanent fur-children, including the infamous Spikey (pictured below). That night, Lolly and her daughter Pineapple were my roommates. The three of us settled into bed and prepared for what I knew would be a very busy day.
We woke up around 7am that morning so that we could be on the road by 8am; we had a full itinerary of destinations where we were hoping to perform rescues, including some from tips we’d received from locals. When we got to the beach, we were instantly greeted by two hungry but cautious mama dogs. One of them appeared to be in very bad condition – from the looks of her, she wasn’t going to make it beyond even another month. She instantly became our top priority for rescue. When the healthier mama’s two mangy puppies appeared from the mangrove beside the beach and we discovered the still body of a third puppy who didn’t make it, our desire to rescue them became even more urgent. They would allow us to feed them, but wouldn’t let us get any closer than that. After a number of hours, we decided to set some traps and leave them, hoping that that would give us a better chance of capture.
Meanwhile, a local named Aida who knew where we would be that day came by with two adorable puppies that she has rescued and wanted to surrender to us. I learned that Aida knew Liza well and often provided her with tips from locals about dogs that needed to be rescued. The first of her tips that day was a stray mama pup who had given birth in a neighbor’s garden. We all piled into our caravan, with Aida in the lead. There was, sure enough, a litter of puppies whimpering in the garden of the home she guided us to. These puppies were hardly a week old, their eyes weren’t even open. Yet they were already covered in fleas, and some even had infected rat bites that needed urgent medical attention. We gathered all nine of them and their gentle mama, and they joined the two we had in the van already.
While driving toward the next tip, we stopped when we saw a skinny Chocolate Lab and a black Pittie hiding from the scorching sun on the side of the road. It took a bit of convincing, but they got into our crates without even knowing that they were going to a place where they would never have an empty stomach again, and where they would receive the medical care they needed for their skin.
Our last stop was up a giant hill. We had to park our cars and hike up to the very top, where an abandoned home stood. We were told that, after the recent earthquakes, the owner of the home had flown to the states with one of his dogs, but he had left this dog chained in his backyard with a bowl of food and a bowl of water that obviously wasn’t going to last even more than a day. Thanks to the kindness of neighbors and their tip to us, this dog didn’t starve to death at the end of the chain. When we rounded the corner of the steep hill and saw this scruffy mutt for the first time, his smile was so huge and he couldn’t stop wiggling his entire body as he wagged his tail. A rewarding rescue of our 15th dog that day.
The end of our rescue day was drawing near and we still had to perform intake at El Faro, so we drove back to the beach where we set our traps, hoping to see the mamas and their two puppies. Our hearts fell when we came back to empty traps. Nicole arranged for a professional dog catcher (the only one in Puerto Rico!) to meet us the next morning at 7am so that we could try again.
The rest of the day was spent doing intake for the 15 dogs, plus the two we had rescued the day before. The nine puppies needed immediate medical care and Bunny, the female dog in heat, needed an emergency spay. Everyone else was settled into their runs and their various grooms and check-ups were scheduled. That night, Karie made us a delicious dinner before we all grabbed our doggy roommates and went to sleep.
The wake up call was 6am this day. We rushed to get ready and then jumped into our cars so that we could meet the dog catcher at the beach where our two mamas had evaded us the day before. When we arrived that morning, the first mama – the one who was so obviously suffering and starving – came out immediately. She was hoping for more food. Our dog catcher set up his automatic trap (one that he would rig with food and, once she was inside, push a button that would automatically shut the cage.)
Within 10 minutes, this beautiful, neglected dog was inside our cage. When the doors closed, she panicked. She started thrashing around so much that we were worried she was going to hurt herself. Luis stuck his hand inside the cage, risking getting bit, and began to pet her. Nicole stood beside the cage, speaking quietly to her. She (who was later named Jadie) quieted long enough for us to loop a leash around her neck.
It took three of us to get her out of that cage and into a crate – she was thrashing around so much that, at one point, she very nearly broke out of all of our grasps. It was Luis who pinned her to the concrete to stop her from getting away. The scene was so incredibly heartbreaking, but we knew that what we were doing was best for her. We also knew that, were she to get loose now with a leash around her neck, she wouldn’t survive for long at all.
Finally, Jadie was in the crate. We put some food into her crate with a tranquilizer pill inside some cheese, hoping she would eat it and that it would relieve some of her stress. Then, we set out to find the other mama and her surviving puppies. Unfortunately, during this commotion, the mama seemed to have fled. We looked everywhere. Liza even went and knocked on neighbors’ doors asking for a machete so that we could knock down branches and underbrush and get into the mangrove that the dogs had fled into. We spent hours in that mangrove – stopping, listening, putting out smelly food, chopping our way deeper into it, and then stopping to listen again. I learned that some days of rescue are incredibly rewarding, and some days break your heart. Because, unfortunately, we did not track down that mom and her two puppies that day.
On our return to El Faro, we did manage to pick up three new animals: one was a dog and cat pair! The kitten walked right up to Nicole, but the dog was guarding the cat and wouldn’t let Nicole pet him. We stood beside them for a while, letting them warm up to us; and the way that the dog and cat would play and cuddle was amazing! You don’t see a bonded pair like that too often. Once the dog saw that we weren’t going to hurt her kitty, she stopped guarding him and Nicole made a fast-friend in that friendly kitten. We were able to loop a leash around the dog, and then the cat just sauntered behind her and into our car. In addition to this adorable pair, we found a regal boy who looked to be some sort of American Eskimo mix. After a nice grooming, he’ll be a stunner! With our van full – but not as full as it could have been – we made our way back to El Faro.
The rest of the day was spent documenting the dogs at El Faro who were scheduled to make their flights to NYC in the coming month. Getting to know these dogs so that we can write proper bios, and getting good photos of them for promotion are two ways we ensure they get adopted quickly! You’d be surprised just how much power a photo has over a dog’s fate. We spent the second half of that long day getting sweaty in the jungle and performing photoshoot after photoshoot. But we’re not complaining! Getting to meet dogs like Barbie and Diana – hearing their rescue stories, or even being a part of them – that’s why we do what we do. Seeing these dogs flash their giant and excited smiles, regardless of the ghosts in their past … they’re an example for all of us.
All in all, my weekend in Puerto Rico was hugely enriching. The team I was with aided in the rescue of 20 dogs, 3 cats, 1 chicken and 1 parrot (but that’s a story for another time.) I feel as though I have a whole new grasp on the mission of Animal Lighthouse Rescue, as well as the way I can give my personal talents to benefit that mission. I better understand the highs and lows of rescue, and I’m thankful for the hundreds of lives we as an organization are able to save. If anyone has a chance to do the hands-on work of animal rescue and welfare, I highly recommend you do so.
And even if you can’t make it to Puerto Rico and chop down mangroves with machetes in pursuit of a stray dog, you can make a huge difference by donating to our work. Every single dollar you donate goes to saving these satos’ lives. It goes to their rescue, their medical work, their rehabilitation, their transportation to NYC, and so many other things that directly benefit our satos. Play an integral part of saving lives: donate here today.