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Dogster Heroes: Two Groups Work to Rescue Puerto Rico's Stray Sato Dogs

Strays in Puerto Rico lead a miserable existence, but these volunteers are helping find them homes.

 |  Aug 27th 2014  |   0 Contributions

According to Urban Dictionary, to be a sato is "to flake, to ditch; someone who agrees to do something but doesn't follow through." Obviously not a very flattering quality. It baffles me because my version of a sato is that of the kindest, most loyal and sweetest dog in the world. Why the confusion?

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In Puerto Rico, where I am from, a sato is the name we give our mutts or mixed breeds. Styles may vary but certain characteristics are built in, like sad, do-as-I-say eyes, ears with incredible scrunching abilities, and a twisty pig-style tail. Impossible to resist.

Some end up in loving homes living long, pampered lives. Like our Caramelo. This sata (she was a girl) was one of the lucky ones. For 13 years she received nothing but love, burgers, and homemade meat dishes. She could do no wrong. She was our princess. Even though she has been gone for many years, to this day, whenever someone in my family talks about her, there is this moment of silence followed by, "We miss her."

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We miss our sweet sata Caramelo. (Photo by Glorimar Anibarro)

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Vicente the three-legged sato. Image courtesy Save a Sato's Facebook page

But most of the satos have a different existence. These are the ones you see wandering the streets, highways, and parking lots by the thousands looking for food, shelter and love. The same ones who are abused and abandoned by (and I am controlling my anger here) disturbed people; the ones whose sad lives end when they starve to death, get run over by a car, or are euthanized at the local shelter. Yes, tissues are necessary when talking about our stray dog situation. 

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Ricardo before and after his rescue. (Photo courtesy Save a Sato)

This is not a new problem. It has been growing for years and clearly something needs to be done. Our government has limited resources, depending on animal control to keep the numbers down. Ninety-nine percent of the animals who arrive at the shelter are euthanized. And without proper spay and neuter programs, the numbers will only go up. The satos needed a hero. Enter the tireless volunteers.

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Satos are ready to fly to Philadelphia, where they have new forever homes. Image courtesy Save a Sato's Facebook page

Save a sato

About 20 years ago, Gloria Márquez was part of a group that started rescuing satos, getting them healthy and ready for adoption. Save a Sato was one of the first groups like this on the island and is still a major force in helping reduce the stray overpopulation. The rescuers even found a new market for the dogs: the United States. Yep, Americans love satos! Save a Sato has partnered with no-kill shelters in the United States, who receive a limited amount of dogs. It helps but doesn't completely solve the problem. "You send six puppies to be adopted and come back to find eight new ones by the door," explains Raquel Malaret, Save a Sato's secretary.

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One of the many satos wandering the streets. (Photo by Glorimar Anibarro)

They are aware that educating the population is the key to helping the situation. They go to schools and teach the kids about respecting your pet and the importance of spay and neutering, but a lot of those children go back to a home where none of that is applied. Frustrating? Yes! Are they quitting? No way.  

The Sato Project

Chrissy Beckels is a New York resident originally from Manchester, England. She had a lucrative job and a happy, pet-friendly life. In 2007, her husband was working in a movie shoot in Puerto Rico and invited her to join him. Dreaming of golden sandy beaches and piña coladas, she hopped on a plane. What she found was satos. Hundreds of them, dumped at the beach, trying to survive (the spot is cruelly called Dead Dog Beach).

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Dogs forage to survive at the cruelly named Dead Dog Beach. (Photo by Cobos Photography)

She fed the ones she could and took a few to a local veterinarian to get treatment. The image of those dogs left to die at the beach haunted her dreams. "I had an insight into something, which took over. I couldn't turn away from it," Chrissy tells me. Her trips to the island became more frequent. Working with local rescue groups she learned the ropes.

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Feeding stray dogs in Puerto Rico. Image courtesy The Sato Project's Instagram feed

In 2011, The Sato Project was born with three volunteers: Chrissy, her husband, and Bianca Aguirre, a veterinarian and miracle worker. The satos who are healthy, social and ready to be adopted are sent to New York, where a list of people are eagerly waiting to foster them until they are adopted. 

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Chrissy hugs one of her rescue dogs. (Photo courtesy Cobos Photography)

The beach were she first found those abandoned satos has become their territory. A number of volunteers visit the area every day to check on new arrivals and feed the ones who refuse to be trapped. Sometimes they find dogs who are long gone and are only waiting to leave this place, and the volunteers take them to the vet and give them a peaceful goodbye. That was the case with Victor Amor. Except he was not ready to leave yet.

Víctor Amor: Sato resilience

Víctor was found on Mother's Day. Mangy skin, dehydrated, malnourished, barely walking. As Chrissy says, "He was already dead." So they took him to the vet to rest. But something happened when they put him on the table. Víctor gave Chrissy one of those famous sato looks, and she quickly changed her mind.

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Victor when he arrived at the vet's. (Photo by Chrissy Beckels)

Even the vet thought she was crazy, but they gave it a try. The results are just amazing. I had the privilege to meet Víctor (named after the wonderful veterinarian who saved him) a month later, and just couldn't believe my eyes. He was a happy and very alert dog with a constantly-in-motion tail. I was in love. And happy to report that after months of recovery, Víctor is in perfect health and has been adopted by a fabulous family. 

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A healthy Victor checks out the camera. (Photo by Tom Carlin)

The Sato Project mission is working. The number of dogs left at the beach have diminished. The system is working. One beach at a time.

The approaches of these organizations may be a little different, but the core of what they do is exactly the same. Raquel believes that "we [Puerto Ricans] are all satos. They are part of who we are as a country." Chrissy feels the same: "They are a reflection of the people of PR, resilient with a big capacity to love." They see good in every being and will keep spreading the message until every sato gets a fair chance to live a happy tail-wagging life.

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Victor enjoying some pampering from me. (Photo by Tom Carlin)

To keep up with the plight of the satos of Puerto Rico, follow Save a Sato on Facebook, and follow the Sato Project on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, and watch its rescue videos on Vimeo. You can also follow the Dead Dog Beach PR Project on Facebook

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About Glorimar Anibarro: A proud Puerto Rican now living in Southern California who traded a career in advertising for a new adventure as bilingual cat writer, sharing her knowledge of kitties in Spanish as the Gato Expert for en Español and in English for Catster, among others. She has also mixed her love of paper dolls and graphic design to write, design, and illustrate the adventures of Gato Avocado, the two-dimensional cat living in a three-dimensional world. 


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