As a writer and blogger dedicated to spreading awareness about animal cruelty issues throughout the world, I’m always on the lookout for rescue groups that go above and beyond the call of duty to improve the lives of animals. So when I stumbled upon The Sato Project a few months ago, I knew I had to tell their story. This incredible group rescues and rehabilitates abandoned dogs from Playa Lucia, a beach in southeastern Puerto Rico — sadly dubbed “Dead Dog Beach” due to its notorious reputation as a canine dumping ground — and rehomes them in the mainland U.S. Since its founding in 2011, the group has saved 1,400 dogs.
With my husband and I planning to spend his birthday in Puerto Rico, I quickly reached out to Chrissy Beckles, The Sato Project founder and president. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect — she and a small group of volunteers were planning a rescue mission the same week we’d be there, and she generously invited us to tag along.
So, last month, Chris and I found ourselves parked in front of a roadside lemonade stand in the coastal town of Yabucoa, waiting for Chrissy’s team to lead us to a vet clinic a few miles away. Although we’d planned on meeting at Playa Lucia, there’d been a change of plans — a couple of dogs the group had in its sights had already been rescued and were en route to Candelero Animal Hospital, the organization’s veterinary partner in Humacao. So while we wouldn’t have a chance to shadow the rescue effort, we’d at least be able to check out the clinic, observe the group’s intake procedures, and take a tour of the beach later that day.
Twenty minutes later, we followed the group’s SUV into a small strip mall, where we were greeted by several smiling women wearing The Sato Project T-shirts. As an all-volunteer, foster-based organization, TSP maintains a dedicated team of 10 Puerto Rico and 25 New York tri-state and Boston-based volunteers. I could tell right away by the way everyone interacted that this was one tight-knit group.
Once inside the cozy clinic, we were introduced to Dr. Bianca Aguirre Hernandez, one of Candelero’s three vets and TSP’s director of veterinary services. As a Puerto Rico native and practicing veterinarian for 11 years, she wasted no time spelling out the educational, economic, and cultural reasons behind the ongoing pet abandonment crisis that has plagued her birthplace for many decades.
“Few people adopt dogs here, and most want to buy them,” Dr. Bianca explained. “This, along with the fact that spaying or neutering is not considered a priority, has increased the amount of strays, so much so that there are just too many dogs for the shelters here to handle. Many of my clients actually get upset if I even say the word ‘castration.’ It’s a really frustrating problem.”
And it’s a big one. According to Humane Society International, there are an estimated 250,000 to 300,000 roaming dogs in the commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an island just three times the size of Rhode Island. And with its economy in crisis — approximately 60 percent of the population lives below the poverty line — pets have become an even lower priority as people struggle to feed themselves and their families.
But unlike in the mainland U.S., most people in Puerto Rico choose to abandon their dogs on beaches or in remote locations rather than surrender them to one of the island’s eight open-intake animal shelters, where euthanasia rates top a staggering 95 percent. The thinking is that castoff pets will have better odds surviving in locations where rescue groups are feeding animals rather than in shelters where they’re immediately doomed.
As we chatted with Dr. Bianca and some of the volunteers, Chrissy walked in, with a mangy little brown dog cuddled in her arms. Petite and slender but obviously very strong (she’s an amateur strawweight boxer), Chrissy has that tough, no-nonsense persona you often find in many veteran rescuers, a heart of gold couched inside a tough-as-nails exterior. I liked her immediately.
Dr. Bianca wasted no time in getting down to business on the scruffy little dog. Christened Han Solo in honor of the new Star Wars movie, he was a pathetic sight to behold, with mangy skin, patches of missing fur, bad teeth, and what appeared to be a damaged or missing eye. Yet despite all the probing, prodding, and poking — which included blood tests, skin scrapings, a dental exam, and X-rays — he seemed to be enjoying all the attention. In fact, his tail never stopped wagging. We all fell in love with him and agreed he was going to make someone an amazing companion.
Chrissy explained to us that most dogs dumped at Playa Lucia present with skin conditions, heartworm, parasites, and bad teeth, and they suffer from malnutrition, depending how long they’ve lived as strays. But once they’re rescued, all of them receive complete medical screenings and any necessary treatments before being cleared for their “freedom flights” to New York City, where they’re received by TSP volunteers, foster families, local shelter partners, and even adopters. While most dogs take about 10 weeks to rehabilitate, some end up staying at the hospital for as long as nine to 12 months if they have heartworm or any other health issues requiring long-term treatment.
“We founded Sato Project on the premise of, ‘in a perfect world, how would we vet our animals and care for them?’ and that’s why we really emphasize medical care,” Chrissy said in her Manchester British accent. “I’m not going to send an animal to the U.S. unless I know for sure that it’s healthy, so we do more than our due diligence.”
Unfortunately, Han’s heartworm test came back positive, which means he’ll be calling Candelero home for several months, bunking up alongside 30 other TSP dogs in the clinic’s bustling kennel. Some are undergoing medical treatment, while others are simply awaiting foster placement and funds to pay for their flights to NYC.
While TSP’s mission to save the strays of Puerto Rico could keep Chrissy and her team returning to the island for many years to come, the group’s five-year efforts at Playa Lucia have paid off significantly. Interested in seeing the results for ourselves, we took a tour with Chrissy.
Once a popular spot for beachgoers and sun-worshippers until the satos and drug activity moved in, Playa Lucia was a serene but unkempt landscape, with azure waves lapping debris-littered sand beneath swaying palm trees backed by dense jungle. Chrissy pointed out the several feeding and watering stations the group has set up throughout the beach, maintained by two Puerto Rico-based volunteers who visit twice daily to keep them replenished as well as check for new dogs.
Empty of life other than a couple of lone fisherman and the occasional seabird, the 80-acre playa appeared to be a far cry from what Chrissy described as a “nightmare scene” of 300 dogs running around in packs.
“When I first came to this beach about eight years ago … I would have to stand in front of 40 or 50 dogs knowing I had the money to take one,” she said. “It’s one of the worst things I’ve ever had to do, because while I’d know that the one I took was going to have a phenomenal life, I was giving the rest a potential death sentence. There would be situations where I’d go back again and they wouldn’t be there, and I’d never know what happened to them.”
Although a 24-hour police presence, a locked after-hours gate, and posted warning signs relaying the unlawfulness of abandoning and abusing animals have helped slow the tide of dumped dogs and animal abusers at Playa Lucia, the beach is just one of 300 on the island. And that means people have plenty of options if they’re intent on dumping their dogs.
Luckily, change may be coming to the island thanks to the Humane Society of the United States, which launched an aggressive animal welfare campaign in Puerto Rico last year. Initiatives underway include cracking down on puppy mills; humane education for more than 400,000 public school students; training programs for shelter staff, rescuers, law enforcement, FBI agents, and animal control officers; and strengthening and enforcing existing animal cruelty laws.
Meanwhile, Humane Society International is working overtime to bring high-volume spay and neuter services to the island. With mobile clinics in 14 municipalities thus far, the organization plans to expand the program island-wide upon further funding. In addition, TSP will be collaborating with HSI on a microchip and vaccine campaign this spring. So not only will this progressive program help slow down pet overpopulation and prevent disease, it will also allow law enforcement to track abandoned pets back to their owners, thus making it possible for Puerto Rico’s Animal Protection and Welfare Act 154 to actually be enforced.
Now that “Dead Dog Beach” appears to be under control, one would think an overworked rescuer like Chrissy would want to take a break. After all, she’s made her fair share of personal and financial sacrifices over the past decade she’s been rescuing dogs on the island, including spending limited time at her New York home. But it appears there’s no stopping this rescue warrior. Not only does her group have its sights set on another beach several miles up the coast, there are also plans to turn Playa Lucia into a dog-friendly community, as well as build a sanctuary.
“I love what I’m doing, and I know we’re making a difference, and that’s why I continue to do it, because it’s tangible,” Chrissy said. “There’s no greater fuel than seeing a little dog like Han Solo, who when he woke up this morning had no idea his life was going to change. That will always be fuel to me, to take a dog like that and change its life.”
To learn more about The Sato Project and support its incredible efforts, please visit its website and check out its Facebook page. You can also make a difference in the lives of Puerto Rico’s animals by supporting the HSUS Humane Puerto Rico campaign.
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About the author: Lisa Plummer Savas is a freelance writer, journalist, devoted dog mom and animal activist. In an effort to help make the world a more compassionate place for non-human species, Lisa uses her writing to spread awareness about animal welfare and cruelty issues. She lives in Atlanta with two spoiled German Shepherds, one very entitled Pug, and a very patient, understanding husband. Read more of her work by visiting her blog and website. You can also follow her on Twitter.