As Hurricane Fiona rumbled toward Puerto Rico, Angel Vega was worried sick when he left the animal shelter where he’s worked for seven years. Everyone had done what they could, but he knew the dog they called Sansón wouldn't survive the storm.
Dellymar Bernal Martínez, president and executive director of the sanctuary, had looked at the forecast and knew they had to move the shelter's 250 cats and dogs to the second floor. She was right: Parts of the island received 30 inches of rain in the hurricane, which caused a total island blackout, massive flooding and landslides. A week after the hurricane made landfall, most of Puerto Rico is still without power or water.
The humanitarian crisis is growing. And at the Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asís in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico, a small band of determined humans is trying to save as many animal lives as possible. Over the din of generators, barking dogs and a constant chorus of local coquis (frogs), they're cleaning up and caring for animals.
“This is the second time the river has come to the first floor,” Martínez tells TODAY at her sanctuary, where the stale smells of dust and stagnant water fill the air. “The first time was Hurricane Maria, and this time the flooding was much, much worse.”
They moved all the sanctuary's animals to the second floor — all except Sansón. The pitbull and mastiff mix can't be around other animals.
“He’s very picky with people, and extremely scared of lightning and thunder,” Vega explained. The staff knew they could not put Sansón on the second floor with the others, out of fear he could escape his kennel in the chaos of the hurricane and hurt another animal.
Just hours before the hurricane hit, the staff fed all the dogs and cats and gave them their medications, Martínez said. They found temporary foster homes for 30 animals, moved the rest to the second floor of the sanctuary and, out of desperation, brought some home with them. But no one could take a pit bull-mastiff mix with aggression issues.
"We didn’t have anywhere to put him, so he was going to have to stay on the first floor,” Vega said. “That day, when I left the sanctuary, I left with the biggest feeling of sorrow and disbelief and let down — the minute I stepped out of here, I knew that if I really left the dog behind, he was going to die.”
Once home, Vega said he started “calling everyone he knew,” looking for anyone with space to house Sansón during the storm. In tears, he tried one more person — a friend who owns a bakery.
“He had a storage area in the back of his bakery, full of bread ovens and stuff from the bakery,” he explained. “He said that if you can clean it, we can put him there. So we started cleaning everything, and at 8:00 the night before the hurricane, we took Sansón there."
“He’s still there — he’s alive,” Vega said. “If he would have been here (at the sanctuary), he would have drowned. So I am very happy.”
All of the animals at the shelter survived the hurricane, and have survived the week since, as volunteers and staff struggle to care for them without electricity or running water. Now, they're bracing for a second crisis, preparing for the wave of stray animals that follow a hurricane.
“We learned during Hurricane Maria that there’s going to be a huge amount of pets on the streets, because people are losing their homes and they’re probably going to lose work,” Martínez explained. "We need to make space, even if we lose the first floor entirely, because there are going to be pets that need us.”
After Hurricane Maria hit the island in 2017, abandoned animals overwhelmed Puerto Rico's shelters, which were already struggling to handle hundreds of thousands of stray animals on the streets, according to the Associated Press. In 2008, a new law in Puerto Rico banned animal cruelty and animal abandonment, but repeated natural disasters have made it hard for even well-meaning people to take care of their pets.
The sanctuary has already welcomed animals left behind due to Fiona — a litter of 5-week old puppies that were abandoned on the street. Their little bellies bloated, the puppies were malnourished, severely dehydrated and riddled with parasites.
A group of about 20 veterinarians and students are helping the sanctuary staff clear debris, throw away damaged property, assess the medical needs of the animals and provide treatments.
The group also prepared a group of animals — including the rescued puppies — for transport to the mainland U.S., giving them the required vaccines and paperwork so they could board a Florida-bound plane on Saturday, Sept. 24.
“I felt very overwhelmed by the situation,” Isabel Medina, a 17-year-old veterinary student and volunteer, told TODAY. “Seeing all of these helpless animals looking for an actual owner — it was devastating.”
Medina still does not have electricity or running water at home in Moca, Puerto Rico, where she lives with her father and 3-year-old sister. Still, she says it was important for her to show up at the sanctuary and give what she could.
“Animals have necessities, just like humans,” she said. “It’s hard to live under these circumstances and for them to be normalized ... To have them run around and be helpless during these types of situations is heartbreaking.”
More than a foot of water still blocks the road to the no-kill sanctuary, and volunteers and staff have to navigate teetering power lines and broken trees to get there.
The first time staff got back to the shelter after the hurricane was about 48 hours since they'd last seen the animals. The National Guard drove them (with some coaxing) through floodwaters that threatened to swamp their truck.
“We were so happy and relieved when we saw all of them alive,” Martínez added. “We called it a storm menu — we gave them canned food and sausage and all the animals were so happy. We have Ray, a heavy weight dog, and he was so happy with the menu.”
Martínez says she has not slept since the hurricane hit. Still, she is determined to carry on and restore the sanctuary, which was first founded by her mother. The shelter now lives in an old rum distillery, where it has survived three hurricanes, multiple earthquakes and countless storms.
“I don’t have human babies,” said Martínez, who also cares for two paralyzed kittens who were kicked so hard by someone, their spinal cords were severed. “But I do have many fur babies.”
Despite the utter devastation the sanctuary and the whole island has endured, Vega says he is grateful.
“Having people come in and help us out fills me with joy,” he said. “This is nothing. I know that if we can come back from Maria, we can come back from this.”
Puerto Rico's stray animal problem
- According to the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, an estimated half a million stray dogs and 1 million stray cats roam the streets of the island.
- After Hurricane Maria nearly 200,000 Puerto Ricans fled their homes either temporarily or permanently and unemployment hit a 11-year high, leaving many people unable to care for their pets.
- Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asís in Hormigueros is accepting donations via PayPal, Amazon Wishlist and at email@example.com.