Outrage in Puerto Rico Over Pet Deaths
Monday, October 15, 2007; 6:55 PM
BARCELONETA, Puerto Rico -- Angry pet owners and protesters demonstrated outside a town hall in a northern Puerto Rico city on Monday, as outrage grew over the killing of dozens of animals seized from residents of housing projects.
The crowd tried unsuccessfully to meet with Barceloneta Mayor Sol Luis Fontanez, who ordered last week's seizure of the cats and dogs that were apparently later thrown from a 50-foot-high bridge. Some protesters yelled "murderer."
Fontanez, who pledged to resign if his government is found responsible, blamed a contractor hired to collect and euthanize the pets.
"My government acted according to the law," he told The Associated Press.
With the help of television news broadcasts, a few animals rescued with broken bones and other injuries were reunited with their owners. Dozens more were buried in a mass grave.
On Monday, the contractor denied responsibility and accused residents of the housing projects of lying to get revenge for repeated raids to clear stray animals.
"There are five people that went and saw their dogs there," said Julio Diaz, owner of Animal Control solutions. "It's their version against mine, and at some point they will have to prove it in court."
Puerto Rico police chief Pedro Toledo said anyone found responsible could face cruelty charges that carry six-month to three-year prison terms.
"Depending on the evidence, charges could be filed for each dead animal," he said.
The city hired the Puerto Rico-based firm Animal Control Solutions to remove the pets after taking over administration of Barceloneta's three housing projects on Oct. 1. Deputy Mayor Lisandro Reyes said the city was responding to complaints about barking dogs and other concerns, but they expected the animals would adopted or euthanized humanely.
"It's become a nightmare," Reyes said, adding that he wanted to see those responsible for any pet massacre to be prosecuted by justice officials.
"We want them to take this to the ultimate consequences," he told AP.
Residents said that during the confiscation, animal control officers threatened to evict those who did not comply with a no-pet policy.
Fontanez said the seizure was ordered in line with Puerto Rican regulations for government-supported housing. Those rules, copies of which were distributed to reporters by Barceloneta officials, say dogs and cats are among animals prohibited in public housing projects on the island.
But the housing projects also receive funding from the U.S. government, and the Department of Housing and Urban Development in Washington said it does not have a no-pet policy and would not authorize a mass confiscation of animals.
"We're not only tremendously upset but deeply disgusted at the idea of anyone doing this to innocent animals," department spokesman Brian Sullivan said. "We're waiting for answers like everyone else."
Diaz said municipal workers conducted the raids and delivered the animals to his employees for transportation to a shelter. But he denied they were the same dogs and cats thrown off the bridge.
He added that some of the bodies were badly decomposed and appeared to have been dumped well before the raids.
Animal rights activists have long criticized the treatment of pets in Puerto Rico, where there is no pet registration law and little spaying or neutering. Animal shelters are overwhelmed and must kill many of the dogs they receive.
Fearing the incident could tarnish Puerto Rico's reputation internationally, the island's tourism company issued a statement of condemnation.
"This truly unfortunate incident is an isolated one and this is the first time that the island has encountered such a situation," the statement said.
Associated Press writer Manuel Ernesto Rivera contributed to this report from San Juan.
(This version CORRECTS that mayor referred to Puerto Rican regulations instead of federal regulations in regard to the no-pet rule at housing projects.)