2011-03-23 / Columnists

Pets, Pets, Pets

You won’t find the following in a travel brochure: An estimated 200,000 stray dogs roam the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico where dogs are too often regarded as pariahs, not family. Island Dog, Inc. is dedicated to changing the canine climate on all U.S. Caribbean islands. This organization’s mission does not stop at airlift adoptions; but also strives to breed kindness through education, spay/neuter programs, and sanctuaries for semi-feral packs.

In 1999, Baltimore native Katie Block, the founder and director of Island Dog, worked in the resort industry of Puerto Rico. She discovered thousands of foraging dogs there. At the time, she started a small scale rescue, recruiting the help of the hotel guests and her family. She soon realized the scope of the problem was too vast. Her passion to help these pups kept pulling her back. In 2006 she moved to Farjado, Puerto Rico and created Island Dog.

Mamma dog at Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico. Mamma dog at Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico. In describing an encounter that cemented her resolve to increase public awareness of this pervasive indifference to animal suffering, Block emailed: “I had always wanted to do something big, but in 2006, I was sitting in traffic in Las Croabas, the park we now take care of, and watched a man run over a dog for fun. When I got out of the car to help the dog, I was screaming. The police sitting at a bar near the car watched me scream and shrugged their shoulders. The people around ignored the dog and cared more about me screaming like a lunatic. No one came to help me with the dog,”

Puerto Rico, the size of Connecticut, has 78 cities. By law, each should have a shelter, but there are only seven under-funded facilities. About 98% of the impounded dogs are euthanized due to crowding and illness. Meanwhile there are 450 pet shops selling unhealthy puppies, added to the discards when their novelty wears off. Carcasses litter the countryside. Few “owned” dogs ever see a vet.

The rest of the abandoned- the breed spectrum from Chihuahua to Bernese Mountain Dog typesface starvation, poison and attacks by disgruntled residents, annoyed by such a nuisance. Samson, a sociable Shepherd would go to the police station to hang out. He became one of Island Dog’s first rescue refugees after the chief threatened to shoot him. Samson is now safely settled in Maryland.

Airlift Adoptions: Island Dog sends about 400 dogs a year to the states, over 1,200 thus far. The price of each flight- $300 per dog- makes it too expensive to transport more. No, the airlines do not donate space. All vet care including spay/neuter and heartworm treatment (whenever necessary) is done in Puerto Rico. The rounded up dogs recover from surgery in open-air shelters or “dog hotels” where Katie and crew assess temperament to see which are tame enough for placement state-side. Those too wary of close human contact are re-released into maintained areas.

Besides Baltimore, Island Dog has rescue allies and foster homes in Illinois, New Jersey and New York. Though not looking to take space needed by homeless dogs here, when possible, the NJ Atlantic County Humane will take in Island Dog waifs while the Alex Brook Canine Center in Chicago will help socialize others.

Meryl Alexander is Island Dog’s Long Island liaison. She became an active participant after reading about Island Dog’s efforts to remedy horrors at Dead Dog Beach in People magazine. Alexander, with a background in finance, does airport pick-ups, coordinates adoptions and foster care, plus arranges fundraising - more about a nearby benefit in a moment.

Red Collar Project: Island Dog believes that overpopulation, abuse and neglect are preventable. The group is realistic. Many of these dogs will never find home sweet home. Now through the Red Collar Project, akin to our ear-tipped feral cat colonies, the dogs returned after altering are maintained by Island Dog caretakers at some of the same spots that had become chronic dumping grounds. In the long run, this is a win/win for tourism. However, convincing all officials of that fact is another uphill battle.

Block explains: “The dogs are tattooed in the ear with the initials of the beach name and a number. They are also given a red collar. The Red Collar Project was established in 2008 to help identify dogs being cared for by Island Dog on the east coast of Puerto Rico. The collar is a symbol of protection and care. The dogs wearing the collars receive food, medications, vaccines, spay/neuter surgery, and the opportunity to be adopted into a state-side home. The red collar helps the locals and tourists identify the island dogs. The locals love the program and have joined our effort to take care of the Red Collar Dogs! It has helped us and the dogs earn respect in the communities which is a huge plus!”

Vision for the Future: Without spay/neuter campaigns the vicious cycle of stray surplus will self-perpetuate. Changing cultural attitudes takes time and perseverance. Island Dog runs a low cost spay/neuter program for “owned” pets. Thanks to a PetSmart grant, they go door to door talking up the benefits of spay/neuter. The response has been positive, with more resistance to neuters than spays. This is similar to the Almost Home approach via their outreach for chained Pit Bulls in Wyandanch.

Reaching children in schools is the key to lasting change. Island Dog provides Kind News, a humane education program that stresses compassion to animals and respect for all. Hopefully, a request to Build-A-Bear Foundation for toy dogs, as something to cherish and value, will be granted soon.

How to Help: On Sunday April 3 from 12 to 3 p.m. Island Dog (www.islanddog.org) is holding a brunch and silent auction at George Martin’s Grill Fire in Merrick. Tickets are $35 in advance; $45 at the door. Call 917- 841-3625. Island Dog is also looking for more foster families, folks to help with airport runs and fundraising, as well as monetary and frequent flyer mile donations.

For Adoption at Babylon Town Shelter (631-643- 9270) Lamar St. W. Babylon: No need for a cruelty competition between homeless dogs near and far. Neglect rears its ugly head everywhere. “Delilah” # 93929 an American Bulldog was found with a male Mastiff (already adopted). She retains a delightful demeanor despite being used as a breeding machine. “Daddio” #93759 is an older Shepherd mix stray found by Almost Home during their Training Wheels stops in Wyandanch. He gets shelter furloughs to accompany Almost Home to adoption events where he has been a perfect gentleman with other dogs and kids. He ignores cats.

Male: “Ciggy”-Chow mix; “Valentino” Akita mix pup.

Female: “Trixie,” “Foxy” & “Lydia” Pits with potential; Shihtzu; “Ali” brindle pup.

Ask about these lovely cats: “Magic,” “Claudius,” “Moo Moo,” “April”.

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