SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — They've been tossed over fences, tied to gates and even left with a $20 bill under their collar. Abandoned animals are overwhelming Puerto Rico's shelters, which were already struggling to cope with the hundreds of thousands of stray animals that were roaming the island even before Hurricane Maria approached.
Hundreds of dogs, cats and even the occasional pet pig and fighting cock have been left at shelters as people flee hardships on the U.S. territory or find they can no longer cope with animals as they try to rebuild their lives after the Category 4 storm that hit three months ago. Many animals are just left to fend for themselves in the streets.
“The situation is horrible,” said Claribel Pizarro, executive assistant at the Humane Society of Puerto Rico. “They want to turn in pets every single day. ... There are a lot of animals being abandoned when we tell them our shelter is full and that there's a waiting list.”
At least 250 people have put their pets on the list for the Humane Society's no-kill shelter, which has a capacity of 80 animals but currently has 120. Some live in cages on the roof because there is no room inside, she said.
In the immediate aftermath of the hurricane, a variety of groups flew more than 1,000 animals to no-kill shelters on the U.S. mainland, but animal activist Sylvia Bedrosian said overburdened shelters are again running out of space and resources and are reporting a drop in adoptions.
“People have always abandoned pets, but not with the magnitude we're seeing now,” she said.
Most of Puerto Rico's animal shelters were badly damaged by Hurricane Maria. Volunteers at one had to wade through waist-deep waters carrying dogs to safety, while other shelters lost their roofs, food and cages.
While there are no official figures, and estimates vary wildly, activists say the number of stray animals increased after the hurricane because many shelters were closed. And with many veterinarians also closed, animal rights activists say they are seeing a sudden jump in the number of puppies due to the interruption in spay and neuter operations immediately after Maria hit.
Shelter officials and volunteers now hope to raise at least $200,000, in part through private donations, to help rebuild five shelters.
At the biggest shelter, located on the south coast, director Maribel Ortiz said she is caring for more than 750 pets at her Canine Sanctuary of Divine Mercy, including 100 abandoned after the hurricane.
“It's too many, right?” she said. “There are a lot of (animals), and we've been criticized for that, but if they're roaming around, we're not going to leave them behind.”
The shelter's roof is collapsing, and the supermarket that used to donate leftover food to help feed the dogs has permanently closed because it was so badly damaged, leaving Ortiz with fewer resources to meet a growing demand.
The strain on the pets is a side effect of the broader devastation that has hit the island.
More than 30,000 people have lost jobs in Puerto Rico, more than 200,000 homes have been damaged, and more than 200,000 Puerto Ricans have fled for the mainland, a few leaving pets tied up in empty homes with a bag of food. Others who remain on the island sometimes find they can no longer afford a pet, or have no place to keep animals because they are staying with friends or neighbors as they wait for power to return.
Some animals are just left behind on roadsides or in empty homes, to be found eventually by crews from the U.S. Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Puerto Rico activists enlisted the help of Cesar Millan, a dog trainer who became known for his TV show, “Dog Whisperer,” to visit the island recently to raise awareness about the situation.
Animal rescuers “need more help as time passes by because everybody forgets,” he told The Associated Press, noting that animals are not the government's priority. “We have to keep it in the minds of people, in the hearts of people. There's a long way to go.”
A shelter in the southwest coastal town of Cabo Rojo said it received 13 cats on Thanksgiving alone plus 46 other animals in recent weeks as it struggles to operate using only its second floor, since its first one remains damaged.
The Saint Francis of Assisi Animal Sanctuary said that overall, it is caring for 150 dogs and cats and has placed another 12 animals in foster homes. But even adoptions sometimes don't take because people return pets or decide to join the exodus.
“Our situation is dire because the number of abandonments has tripled in recent weeks,” said Dellymar Bernal, president of the sanctuary's board of directors. “We know the abandonments are going to continue or worsen. ... Unfortunately, Hurricane Maria is still claiming animals as victims.”
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