Four Years After María; The Untold Story

Note: This story was written in October 2017 but was never published until now, the four-year anniversary of Hurricane María.

There are so many stories about Hurricane María. Families losing their houses, others evacuating for safer places, and I even heard one about the man climbing to the top of a closet cabinet with his dog to survive a flooding. People had different experiences, and many of them are filled with destruction. This is not one of those stories.  I thought I would share my story but from the point of view of the volunteers of an animal rescue organization. This is ARF of Rincón’s story.

First, I think you have to understand that one of the many things we do in our organization is to find homes for stray dogs. Some of these homes are in the United States and we have partners in the mainland who are our contact with potential adopters. When Hurricane María came, we had over 20 dogs being taken care by fosters. Because we are not a shelter, those dogs are in our own homes and at the houses of other volunteers. For the hurricane, we brought all fosters inside. Besides my own pets (three dogs and two cats), I had three foster Chihuahuas and one more additional cat of a friend. Miriam Juan, ARF of Rincón’s President, had her own five dogs, a friend’s other five dogs, and over 10 foster dogs. I honestly have no idea how she managed to take care of them during the 24-plus hours that Maria stayed with us.

Miriam Juan, ARF of Rincón President, during Hurricane María.

For me, the passing of the hurricane was exhausting because it just felt like it took forever. The loss of communication meant that we had no idea where the hurricane was, how much longer it was going to take, or when it was going to be over. I saw my dogs holding it in as they are trained to do their business outside. The Chihuahuas were in a room by themselves with the floor covered in newspapers; because they were not potty-trained and they had only arrived to my house two days before, they just kept tearing off the newspapers and “having accidents” on the floor. At one point, I took my own dogs to the room with the newspapers for them to relieve themselves, but one of them, Coco – my oldest – would not go. There was a moment I found myself pleading with María just to “give me a break” as my dog really needed to go to the bathroom. Coco held it for over 30 hours.

The three Chihuahuas being fostered by Ivette.

Once the hurricane passed, our only way to communicate with each other for the next few days were to go to each other houses. The kennels that we have at one of our volunteer’s property were destroyed – we knew we needed to build new ones. That also meant that all foster dogs and cats would remain inside our houses. After couple of days, some of us were able to get signal on our cellphones. Miriam was able to receive a communication from one of our partners in the USA: they said to be in the Aguadilla airport the next morning as there would be an airplane that would take all of our foster dogs to the mainland. This was our chance to send all our rescuers to safer places (and hopefully to forever homes) so we could start rebuilding. It was 9pm that day when Miriam was able to reach me; by 5am the next morning, six cars were in front of Miriam’s house loading them with kennels and dogs. Others met with us at the airport.

When we arrived to the airport, we realized that we did not have a number for the airplane flight, not even a contact information or the time of its landing. Communication was so bad that we couldn’t reach anyone. We now had to wait and pray for the airplane to arrive. The others had to leave and Miriam and I were left at the airport with only two cars and approximately 30 dogs. The plane really needed to arrive.

Arriving to the airport on October 2, 2017.

I honestly don’t remember when the plane finally landed. By then we had identified each dog and kennel with the name of the person who the dog was supposed to be send to. To our surprise, the person in charge told us that we needed to surrender the dogs as they would go to a shelter and they were not transporting them to other people. “Surrender our dogs” – the words grew heavy in me. Surrender. I still hate that word. My heart sunk. In all my years in ARF of Rincón we have never sent a dog to a shelter. I started crying and the only thing I was able to ask was “is it a non-kill shelter?” A lady, who to this day I still don’t know who she was, assured me they were not a kill shelter and that the dogs would be safe with them.

Miriam would later be criticized for our decision to surrender our foster dogs. But I completely agreed with her. It was just the two of us out there; there was no way to take the dogs back or a way to communicate with others to come back and pick them up. We didn’t have power or control over the situation. Looks like surrendering our dogs also meant that we had to surrender ourselves. And it was horrible.

To this day I don’t know what happened to the Chihuahuas that I was fostering. It has been the first and only time I didn’t receive a picture of one of my foster dogs when they arrived to their new home, with their new family. I don’t know if they were adopted together or if they were separated. I might never know. And I have to accept that.

So that’s our story. Hurricane María did not take our houses nor broke our windows – we were blessed that way. But it took something from us; it took our assurance that our foster dogs were well taken care of and, for a while, we felt powerless. María took a little bit of the hope that we had in ourselves that sometime, somehow, everything was going to be fine.

Animal Rescue Foundation of Rincón is a non-profit organization that serves the town of Rincón, Puerto Rico. For more information please visit http://arfrincon.org

Covid-19 Adjustments (updated)

Like any other region, establishment, or organization, ARF of Rincón has been affected by the Coronavirus (Covid-19). Over a year later, things still have not return to the way we were. Although the island has started to “slowly open”, it is still very difficult to resume operations as before. Appointments with veterinarians still can take more than a month and not all airlines have resumed to pre-pandemic operations.  Summer temperatures also represent a challenge, making it more difficult to open spaces for new rescues. ARF of Rincon will still try to assist people and help them in any way we can, but our resources are limited.

“Puppy Travelers” Needed

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Picture Source: Pet Life Today

We used to send our dogs to the states using either American Airlines Cargo (from San Juan) or United Airlines (from Aguadilla). As of June 23, 2021, United Airlines’ PetSafe program indicated in its webpage that their operations are suspended. Flights from San Juan have resumed operations, but pets traveling via cargo can only do so if the temperatures are 85 degrees or less at both departure and arrival airports. Therefore, many flights are cancelled during the summer because of this requirement. Pets can travel in the cabin if they meet size requirements, which vary among airlines.

ARF of Rincon sometimes needs volunteers to take our adopted rescues to their homes in the mainland. So if you are a frequent flyer to Philadelphia, Boston, or New York and can serve as a “puppy traveler”, please let us know. All pet-related costs will be covered. Sometimes some of our rescues have to travel to Florida or other states so please visit our Facebook page and Like us so you can keep you updated.

Taking Care of Your Older Dog… and Saying Goodbye

I have been postponing writing about this. The truth is I didn’t know how to start. Then today a friend had to say goodbye to their beloved pet of 12+ years. Her pain was unbearable and I could feel it. There is no easy way… so let’s just rip off the band-aid.

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Coco was no stranger to the beach where he would say “Hi” to everybody. 

When I rescued Coco the veterinary said he was between three and five years-old. I decided he was three years-old; that way in my mind he was going to stay with me for a long time. He was active, ran like the wind, and – oh – did he love the ocean. One time I was snorkeling maybe 25 feet off shore and suddenly he was next to me.

As years passed by my Coco started walking slower. My baby was not my baby anymore and Coco became an older dog. Suddenly he didn’t want to go into the ocean anymore. He weighed over 70 pounds (hey, he was a Labrador!) so putting him in the car got to be very difficult. So I bought those steps so he could get in the car and enjoy the rides… although he would not put his face out the window anymore. Coco would just lay still in the back of the car. I also noticed he would sleep most of the day, and then he started having accidents inside the house.

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Finding “treasures” near the tennis courts. 

What did I do? I don’t have a recipe of how to take care of older dogs – Coco was my first! I just tried my best to repay him for being “the best dog ever”. Coco basically helped me be a better rescuer; I don’t think I would have had so much success in training dogs to be better suitable for homes if it wasn’t for him. Now it was my turn to help him and to show him a lot of love. I also let him do whatever he wanted. “Oh, you want a piece of steak? There it is! Do you want to pee inside the house? Don’t worry, I will clean it. My first born? Here, you can have him!” Oh, and I kissed him. I kissed him a lot… Sometimes I think I over did it. But I knew the day was coming when I was not going to be able to kiss him anymore, so I didn’t care.

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Coco’s last picture taken on August 11th, 2019.

Coco passed away on August 12th, 2019. Sadly, I wasn’t there with him to say goodbye. I was out of Puerto Rico and I remember telling him “hold on until I come back.” But he had other plans. It seems like he did one final act of saving me from the pain of seeing his lifeless body. I get to remember him smiling and wagging his tail.

So this is my goodbye to you. Thank you for being such a wonderful dog. It was an honor and a privilege to be your mom. You brought happiness into my life and I learned about unconditional love because of you. You were the best dog ever.

“Who rescued who?”

Our Goal of ARF’s First Feral Cat Mass Sterilization: Checked!

For over a year we, the members of ARF, have been talking about how to attack the problem with the overpopulation of feral cats. Dogs are easier to catch, to sterilize, and to find homes for. Cats, however… well, for some reason cats are more difficult. It seems that you have to offer your firstborn in order to catch them, and we rarely can find a foster parent or, even less, a potential forever home. I, personally, love cats; but I think it is true what they say: you do not adopt a cat, the cat adopts you. Anyway, cats reproduce so much faster than dogs, so we knew we had to start doing something. We decided that the concept of TNR – Trap, Neuter, Return – was the starting point.

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Volunteers and Dr. Cruz’ team assemble all the equpment for the mass sterilization. 

During the weekend of June 8 and 9, 2019, we hired the services of Dr. Jose Armando Cruz to do ARF’s first feral cat mass sterilization, and over 100 females cats were spayed. I am not going to lie: this was not easy. By the end of Sunday, every bone in my body hurt, and I am pretty sure I was covered with all sorts of cats’ DNA.  Probably angry because I cheated on him, my own cat ignored me for the next few days (the dogs, however, loved it). But even if we felt like a train ran over us, we were happy to see the people of Rincon helping us.

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One of the cars waiting for its turn to be sterilized. 

We are thankful to the community who made this possible and to the people who understood that the situation of feral cats can only be solved if we all work together. During those two days people showed up with the cats from their neighborhood or we had to go and pick them up. But it was amazing to see the community stepping up, and for that we are immensely grateful. We also want to thank the volunteers from Hudson Valley Animal Rescue and Sanctuary who travel all the way to Puerto Rico to help us with our mission and to Dr. Cruz and his team, for believing in our organitzation. But most of all, we want to thank our supporters, especially everyone who attended our Saint Patrick’s Day fundraiser, as its proceeds went towards this mass sterilization. We are only hoping we could do more of these in the future.

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Dr. Cruz and his team, Hudson Valley Animal Rescue and Sanctuary, and ARF of Rincon.

A Dog Like Coco

I have a dog named Coco and he is a handsome, loving, and gentle chocolate labrador who steals the hearts of all my friends – many have fought for the right to keep Coco if something happens to me. It is very common to hear people say “I would love to have a dog like Coco.” Well, Coco was not so well behaved in the beginning.

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Coco, the first day he arrived to the house. 

Coco is the first dog I ever had; a neighbor brought it to me on December 31st, 2010. He was skinny and had scratches all over his body; Coco had been roaming this hotel for weeks and fighting with other dogs. That first night I left him inside the house (I didn’t have a fenced yard) because I was going to go to a New Year’s Party and when I came back he had “accidents” (both kinds) all over the house. So the first thing was to train him and put up a fence.

Then, one day as I am walking Coco on the beach he approached another dog in an aggressive way; someone suggested I should neuter him. So the next week Coco was neutered and we started working on his behavior towards other dogs. Other things that happened? Coco chewed furniture, destroyed dog beds, and knocked over the neighbor’s trash can and distributed all the trash evenly throughout his yard. One time he even managed to get in some stranger’s car. I put flyers all over town until someone said where they have seen my beloved Coco: he was drinking beers in the pool at the stranger’s house.

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Coco wearing the cone of shame; spay and neuter are important to decrease the number of stray dogs and cats in Puerto Rico.

So how did this 80-plus-pound mischief turned into such an amazing dog? Love. And patience. And training. And more love. Coco helps me train all the fosters that come into my house; many of them fall in love with him and don’t leave his side. When I got Coco the veterinary told me he was between three and five years-old. So it is possible to train an adult dog. Many people want to adopt a puppy thinking that is the only way they can train them the way they want, but all my fosters have been adult dogs and, once they are treated with love, they end up being wonderful dogs.

Please consider adopting an adult dog. With patience and love, you may end up with a dog like Coco.

Coco and foster

Coco has been a great help when it comes to foster other dogs. 

 

We are grandparents!

Since I have been involved with ARF of Rincon, none of our dogs and cats (both our own as well as our fosters) have given birth. We are serious about spaying and neutering; we rescued a dog and first thing is vaccines and sterilization. Our own pets, as soon as they are 6-months old, is “SNIP-SNIP”. So we have been newborn-free for many years… Until this past weekend.

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Miriam received a call that a pregnant boxer was dumped. In less than one hour she had taken the dog to a safe place and… Oh – was she pregnant. The dog was already looking for a place to give birth. Two days later the puppies arrived. We named the new mom Celia, in honor of Celia Cruz, a Cuban singer.

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So now we have seven puppies. We have to wait until they are old enough so they can eat by themselves and have the first round of vaccines; then they will be ready for adoption. Name suggestions are welcome. And as soon as Celia finishes nursing them, is SNIP-SNIP time for her!

celia and puppies

2018 ARF Fundraisers: St. Patrick’s Day at Villa Cofresi & Mangia Mi Restaurant

On March 14th ARF of Rincón celebrated its 20th St. Patrick’s Day Annual Fundraiser at Hotel Villa Cofresi. Joseph Montaperto a.k.a. DJ Mouse provided us with great music (thank you so much!) and the community of Rincón came and celebrated with us. We are grateful that we can count on your support. This year, we publicly thanked three people. First Jossie and Mike Freundel; this lovely couple never says no and are always willing to help us. They sell tickets like no one and are great at selling 50-50 raffle tickets. Second, Joanmarie Pondolfino, who has been participating since the first St. Patrick’s Day fundraiser (and we even changed the date of the event so she could go!).

Then, on May 20th, the owners of Mangia Mi Restaurant, organized a fundraiser for ARF of Rincón. There was a silent auction and a 50-50 raffle (won by Miriam Juan, who gave it all away). People enjoyed good food and Bruno (ARF’s poster child) was even allowed to eat some pizza!

We want to thank all of you who are involved, one way or another, with our mission. Thank you!