Veterinarian technician Karitza Ortiz helps animals every day at her job at the Humane Society of Broward County (HSBC). From giving pets vaccinations to preparing them for surgeries, Ortiz makes a difference in the lives of animals she treats.

But during a recent visit to animal shelters in Puerto Rico, the 28-year-old Fort Lauderdale resident learned that without the right tools there are limits to how even the most compassionate people can help animals. While touring shelters on the island, she saw ailments like kennel cough go untreated. Older animals suffered from hip problems.

Puerto Rican Dog Kennel

“It broke my heart. They want to help,” she said of the staff at the animal shelters in Puerto Rico. “They just don’t have the resources.”

She and Susan Angus, an Animal Care Supervisor at the HSBC, spent five days this month on the island working with local shelters to improve their care and ease overcrowding. The trip was dubbed Operation Grey Muzzle to help older dogs – a large portion of the Puerto Rican shelter population – find permanent homes. The Humane Society of United States (HSUS) – a national group unaffiliated with the HSBC — organized the trip to transport more than 200 dogs to shelters across the US. Twenty-four of the dogs came to Broward County, and many of them are now available for adoption.

While there, Karitza and Susan delivered food and hundreds of Kuranda dog beds to local shelters across the island. Karitza, who was born in Puerto Rico, also served as a translator for the trip. HSBC was paired with two sister shelters in Puerto Rico and will continue to work with their staffs to improve conditions.

Puerto Rico shelters

Our partnership with the HSUS’s outreach in Puerto Rico is twofold. First, we are helping to combat overpopulation by finding homes for the island’s dogs and cats on the mainland. Second, with help from the HSUS, we are working with our sister shelters to improve their buildings and animal care through fundraising and mentoring programs.

The island is in the midst of a deep recession and the government — unable to file for bankruptcy because strict rules governing US territories – is starved for funds. Thousands of people struggling to find work in Puerto Rico have opted to move to the US mainland in recent years for a chance at a better life. However, in many cases pets in Puerto Rico don’t join their owners in the states. People have abandoned their pets on city streets and beaches, adding to the already sizable number of stray dogs and cats on the island.

With more animals in need and less government support, animal advocates in Puerto Rico have turned to animal welfare organization in the United States like HSBC.

One shelter that is in desperate need of help is Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis. The volunteers run the shelter out of an old abandoned building on the edge of Caba Rojo, a mostly rural region on Puerto Rico’s southwest coast.

Karitza said she was taken aback when she and Susan arrived at Santaurio de Animales – one of HSBC’s sister shelters — to pick up dogs to transport to the US.

Puerto Rican Dog Kennel

“When we walked in, the smell of ammonia was bad,” she said, noting that most of the other shelters she visited where more on par with US facilities.

Maintaining a shelter like this is a daunting task, but Karitza says that the volunteers are doing the best with what they have. They have made important upgrades to Santuario de Animales’ building, adding electricity and running water. But big capital improvements are still needed. According to the HSUS, “Leaders of the group cannot take on the project without relieving the sanctuary of the burden of care for some of the animals, and freeing up space for refurbishing.”

The staff lines the kennels with newspaper to keep them clean, but the shelter staff would like to replace the porous concrete floor and install drains to improve sanitation and prevent the spread of disease. The windows of the shelter need glass panes to better protect the animals from the elements and insects. Unlike in the US where most shelter animals are typically housed separately, the dogs at Santuario de Animales share space.

Many of the dogs at Santuario de Animales have stayed there for most of their lives. One dog – a German Shepherd mix named Bahia – lived at the shelter for eight years before Ortiz and Angus helped transport her to Broward County. Bahia is now at our shelter in Broward County, and she is available for adoption.

Bahia (ID 581548)

While the staff in Cabo Rojo works hard to keep the animals comfortable and clean, efforts like Operation Grey Muzzle free up much needed space. HSBC occasionally takes in Puerto Rican animals when space is available in our shelter.

“When we were there, they were crying because we were helping them,” Karitza said, wiping her eyes herself. “Their heart is really in the right place.”

Puerto Rico shelters

Karitza said the volunteers knew all the animals by name even without collars or name tags. “It was like the dogs were family,” she said.

Medical supplies are also sorely needed at Santuario de Animales. While shelters in Puerto Rico provide many of the services of mainland shelters such as spay and neutering surgeries and vaccinations, medical supplies are limited so many animals aren’t up-to-date on their vaccinations as they could be. Santuario de Animales was also the victim of a recent break-in where food and medical supplies were stolen.

In the coming months, volunteers from Santuario de Animales will travel to Fort Lauderdale, learning best practices as they see a state-of-the-art animal shelter in action.

“It won’t happen overnight, but slowly we will help them and get them up to date.” Karitza said.

If you would like to make a difference in the lives of the shelter animals of Puerto Rico, donations can be made to the HSBC, or by calling the HSBC at 954.989.3977 ext. 6. These funds are used for cases like Operation Grey Muzzle and for animals in immediate need of aid.

Happy Updates

Here are some photos of the newly-adopted dogs which came from the Operation Grey Muzzle Transport.

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