Driving a desolate road near Los Machos Beach Puerto Rico, Katie Block spots a small puppy lying in the middle of the road. After a brief search, the puppies’ mother and two siblings are found nesting in the roadside bushes. “These dogs are new to this beach,” she tells me. “They were probably dumped here yesterday.”
As the founder and director of Island Dog Inc., the largest nonprofit animal welfare organization on the island, the rescue of homeless dogs is a daily routine for Block. On a daily basis, Block and volunteers feed and medicate homeless dogs living on several beaches on the eastern coast of the island. Many of these dogs have suffered horrendous abuse from beatings, scaldings, and starvation. Currently an estimated 150-200,000 stray dogs inhabit Puerto Rico at any given time.
Puerto Rico, a U.S. territory, has long harbored a poor reputation for the treatment of animals. A self-governing territory, with only about half a dozen animal shelters, the island has no government sponsored spaying and neutering programs. A well-known dumping ground for abandoned dogs, “Dead Dog Beach,” lies on the island’s southern coast. The Puerto Ricans even have a slang word called “Sato” for street dog.
“It’s the culture,” explains Block. “The Puerto Ricans think it’s not macho to neuter a male dog.” Block also relates how the government does little to resolve the stray dog problem, despite numerous requests from animal welfare groups, animal advocates and even tourists. She describes witnessing a man breaking out of line at a traffic light, to purposely run over a stray dog. After reporting this incident with the man’s license number to the police, no action was ever taken against the perpetrator. This incident was one of many factors that inspired Block to create Island Dog Inc. in 1996.
The success of Island Dog is evidenced in Las Croabas beach, where the organization has reduced the number of homeless dogs from thirty to three. In 2008 Island Dog created the “Red Collar Project,” where dogs fitted with red collars receive food, vaccines, medications and spay/neuter surgery. Locals identify red collared dogs as “Island Dogs” and even assist in their protection and care.
Island Dog also operates an adoption program sending rescued dogs to several key cities in the United States. Coordinators in each city receive the dogs, place them in foster homes and use Petfinder to find prospective owners.
Katie Block describes her ultimate goal as the elimination of the homeless dog problem in Puerto Rico by preventing overpopulation. “The bigger picture,” she explains, “is not just rescuing dogs but to drive spay and neuter programs.”