On a sunny Saturday at the Nevins Farm MSPCA animal shelter in Methuen, Mass., dozens of hopeful adopters turn out to meet a new batch of puppies. Eight dogs rescued from hurricane-ravaged Puerto Rico arrived at the shelter last week looking for their forever homes.
The puppies, some as young as 8 weeks old, roamed around their pens playing with each other, the toys littered around them, and soaking up the love and attention from interested adopters and volunteers.
When natural disasters strike, animal shelters in the affected areas quickly become overwhelmed as facilities already full of adoptable dogs attempt to handle incoming loads of displaced pets. In Puerto Rico especially, where the island already faces severe overpopulation of stray dogs, hurricane Maria added undue stress to the island’s shelter system.
The Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (MSPCA) has done disaster-related rescue work before. Sometimes MSPCA volunteers and staff help to clear out shelters before disasters strike. In the case of Puerto Rico, the group offered assistance alleviating the burden of overflow at local shelters as island residents began to sweep up and begin to rebuild after Maria. This month the MSPCA also took in 34 cats from a shelter in St. John in the wake of hurricane Irma.
It’s often hard to know, however, what will be most helpful to the animals and the shelters in areas recovering from natural disasters, says Katie Surrey, the adoption supervisor at the Animal Rescue League (ARL) of Boston.
“[O]ften times, what they need most is space ... when they can’t send their animals anywhere, they are limited in their ability to help out their own local animals,” Ms. Surrey says.
ARL has been working in recent months to establish regular transports of shelter dogs from Puerto Rico to help relieve the strain of their unusually high stray population, says Ms. Surrey. After Maria their work became even more urgent. The ARL also took in 20 cats from Puerto Rico.
Monthly or weekly transports of dogs from shelters and rescue programs in Puerto Rico have been coming to New England shelters for almost 15 years says Twig Mowatt, secretary of the All Sato Rescue program, a nonprofit dedicated to helping street dogs in Puerto Rico. Like other animal rescue organizations that operate in Puerto Rico, All Sato Rescue has established transport lines between shelters in parts of the country that have the space to take in dogs as soon as they are rescued, vetted, and cleared for adoption.
Aracelis Rosario, originally from Puerto Rico, and her daughter Julianna have been looking for a puppy for a few months. When they heard that puppies were coming to the Nevins Farm shelter after the hurricane, they made sure to submit their application
“We want to get it to help, you know?” says Ms. Rosario. Her sister lives on the island and their attempts to send her packages, money, and even plane tickets have been complicated by the devastation from the storm. While she and her daughter are still trying to do what they can for their family, adopting a tiny dog – Pedro, a white puppy with a big grey spot around one eye, won their hearts – felt like one small way to connect with the island they know and love.
But even if a family isn’t chosen to take home a Puerto Rican puppy, adopting a local dog will still help rescue efforts, says Surrey.
The community response for the eight dogs at Nevins Farm (five of which are brother and sisters, named Pepe, Pedro, Pablo, Paulina, and Paola) has been overwhelming says Maryanne Martin, a locally based, long-time volunteer. The shipment of animals also included 34 cats. Word about the puppies traveled fast and applications came flooding in via email, phone calls, and in-person visits. “People see these situations and they’re very drawn to them,” she says, adding that people are coming from all over New England to adopt the dogs.
Every applicant for the Nevins Farm dogs will be interviewed, given a chance to visit with the puppies, and their application added to the pile for the one they want to take home. The applications are carefully considered before the shelter decides on best-fit matches.
For many hopeful adopters, this means they won’t get to take home any of the Puerto Rico puppies. “This is tough when they do it this way, but it’s fair,” says Diane Pelletier, a long time volunteer, and former adoption counselor.
Kathy Lombardi from Derry, N.H., has been looking to adopt a new dog for quite some time and hopes she gets matched.
When she met Mario, whom volunteers describe as the cuddliest of the litter, it was love at first sight. “He seemed to want to come out and once he came out, he picked me,” she says and the added benefit of knowing she would be helping a dog in need made the moment even sweeter.