Destroyed communication infrastructure left rescuers incommunicado
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico––“Brutal winds left streets in the historic Old Town of the Puerto Rican capital, San Juan, strewn with rubble––collapsed balconies, fallen lamp posts, and dead birds, reported Dave Graham and Robin Respaut of Reuters the morning after Hurricane Maria ripped across the length of Puerto Rico.
That was the first post-Maria news about animals to reach ANIMALS 24-7 in the wake of the hurricane, and almost the only news about animals to reach us, too, for more than a week, amid a near-total break in electronic communications caused by loss of power to an estimated 95% of the island, along with the loss of almost every cell phone transmission tower and radio antenna.
Para Este rescue founders were hit by both Irma & Maria
Even verifying the survival of the founders, directors, and key personnel at the dozen-or-so Puerto Rican animal shelters and rescue societies took days.
Not until September 26, 2017, for example, was singer/songwriter Gina Figueroa able to confirm that her father Alfredo Figueroa and stepmother Sally Tully-Figueroa, founders of the Pare Este animal rescue nonprofit organization, had survived Hurricane Maria. The hurricane made landfall on the Puerto Rican mainland just south of their home in Fajardo.
The Figueroas were already in desperate straits when Hurricane Maria compounded the situation.
Lost roof, flooded, injured, & then the situation got worse
“Half of their roof was torn away by Hurricane Irma and they suffered severe flooding,” Gina Figueroa posted to Facebook. “The property had a lot of debris strewn about. They also have health issues. My father recently fell and the left side of his body was in pain as he was prepping for Hurricane Irma,” which barely missed Puerto Rico, doings extensive damage itself, two weeks before Hurricane Maria.
“Sally has osteoarthritis in her spine, which is degenerative, and it is very painful for her to walk,” Gina Figueroa continued. “I spoke with my father at 9 p.m. the night Hurricane Maria was hitting. Their nonprofit, Pare Este,” one of the oldest animal rescue organizations in Puerto Rico, “provides vaccinations and sterilizations for cats and dogs. They have always cared for satos (street dogs) and that is their passion.”
Dead Dog Beach
While Gina Figueroa was unable to get to Puerto Rico immediately to find and look after her parents, Sato Project founder and former Golden Gloves boxing champion Christina Beckles, 39, “flew to the devastated island [from New York City] after the hurricane to assist her staff and whatever dogs they could help,” reported Jennifer Gould Keil of the New York Post on September 28, 2017.
“The hurricane hit directly on Dead Dog Beach in Yabucoa,” where the Sato Project is headquartered, Keil continued. The beach is near a refuse dump frequented by street dogs, where unwanted pets are often abandoned.
“Once the hugs and tears were over, the first thing we all wanted to do was go to the beach to look for our feral dogs,” Beckles posted to Facebook. “Sadly, we did not find them and our hearts are heavy with the reality upon seeing the utter devastation at the beach — they did not survive.”
“The municipality suffered the loss of 99% of their buildings. We were caring for three feral dogs there and they have not been seen since 9/19,” Beckles said, adding that the team had “three dogs since the hurricane. One is heavily pregnant and was with a small puppy.”
Island Dog, with offices in Luquillo, Puerto Rico and Virginia Beach, Virginia, was another of the first animal organizations struck by Hurricane Maria––and was hit amid organizing relief efforts on behalf of shelters serving the islands of St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix, all devastated by Hurricane Irma.
“For the past 11 years we have been working in disaster mode,” posted Island Dog founder Katie Block as Hurricane Maria loomed. “There is always a sense of urgency. There is always a matter of life and death,” Block said.
“There are always dogs dying on the side of the road. There are always dogs being dumped on the beaches. There is never enough help, there is never enough money, and there is never enough support from our governments. Now Hurricane Maria is going to make our lives so much worse. We have already been without power and water for 10 days. No water and dogs is another disaster. We will just keep going. We will keep having hope. Island Dog will keep moving forward as we have for all these years.”
Originally from Baltimore, Block founded Island Dog in 2006, having earlier spent three years in Fajardo.
Also among the first Puerto Rican animal rescuers to make contact with the outside world was Glen “Catman” Venezio of Santurce, an island resident since 2002, formerly of Piscataway, New Jersey.
Santurce, at the extreme western end of Puerto Rico, is protected by steep mountains and was the last Puerto Rican city hit by Hurricane Maria. Santurce, nonetheless, was “total devastation,” Venezio posted on September 20, 2017.
“I found some of my street cats,” Venezio said. “I will need massive help to keep the cat work going.”
“I have found many cats”
Posting to Facebook whenever he found a cell phone “hot spot” and had enough battery power to take advantage of it, Venezio added four hours later, “Have been three hours in pitch dark streets in the rain looking for cats and I found many. They look scared and very hungry. I fed as many as I could. I am defying a curfew and also jumping and climbing over many downed trees. Power cables and other chunky debris are everywhere., and i can barely see. But I have found many cats.”
Updated Venezio on September 24, 2017, “Still doing my route all night long during the night curfew. I see my police friends each night and have not had any problems. All the cats are okay except for a few I still have not seen since hurricane, but maybe I just don’t spot them in the darkness. It is harder and harder to get online: no signal and no charge on phone…..thank you to those who have helped and also for the wonderful encouragement and support. I have been touching many fallen trees and picking up many dead birds since the hurricane and telling them all how sorry I am. So grateful that the cats somehow survived.”
Cat rescuer “should be shot”
Added Venezio on September 28, 2017, “Still in street now at 4:19 a.m. finishing route. It is pitch black darkness. Cannot see even a foot ahead and cannot do route in day either. First day after hurricane a guy came up to me walking with his wife looking at destruction and proceeded to argue with me about the cats. And told me I should be shot. Huge destruction here and people still want to argue about me caring for cats. This tragedy has not made the horrible people better. It only makes them more horrible. Cat food very hard to find, paying triple price in supermarket because cannot get to PetSmart. Please don’t ask me questions; I cannot reply. I almost never have more than 10% charge on cell and need it for all night in street in extreme danger.”
Few were able to take pets to storm shelters
The Puerto Rican street dog, feral cat, and free-roaming semi-feral chicken populations, though small by the standards of much of the developing world, are huge by U.S. standards, and are expected to have become much larger as result of Hurricane Maria, even though thousands of dogs, cats, and chickens may have been killed.
Thousands of Puerto Ricans fled to emergency shelters ahead of Hurricane Maria, but relatively few took their pets, partly because of lack of transportation––relatively few Puerto Ricans have cars––and partly because pets in Puerto Rico usually roam free, and are therefore not easily caught when frightened.
“As of 2:30 a.m. we count 10,059 refugees and 189 pets (in shelters),” Puerto Rican governor Ricardo Rosselló tweeted just before Hurricane Maria disrupted all communications.
Now joining the street dogs, feral cats and chickens who weathered the hurricane are thousands of other dogs, cats, and poultry from backyard egg-laying flocks or gamecock collections whose homes with humans have been destroyed, or who bolted in terror during thunderstorms, became lost, and are unable to find their displaced people––or are simply unable to get back to them, across streets that have become canals and fields that are now muddy lakes.
(Much more to follow, about the monkeys of Cayo Santiago, the racehorses and other equines of Puerto Rico, and animal relief efforts in the Virgin Islands and Cuba.)