Columnist

The passenger in seat 17C was gnawing on his seatmate's ear. Over at 9F, that passenger was licking his, well, nether regions. Everyone in row 23 was yowling.

Yes, this was a plane filled with animals. And yes, it was hilarious.

Eventually, when the Boeing 737 reached cruising altitude, the animals — who had all been through hell during Hurricane Maria — settled down, the hum and vibration of the engine putting them into that deep, pile-of-puppies sleep.

This is supposed to be a warm story of big human hearts and velvet-soft ears. It's about frightened animals who were found abandoned and starving, lost in the devastation and chaos of the hurricane that ripped across the island four months ago.

An airplane full of animals — most of them Puerto Rican "satos," the affectionate term for mutts — was flown from San Juan to Baltimore on Saturday, thanks to hundreds of volunteer hours and thousands of volunteer dollars marshaled by lawyer and animal lover Mirah Horowitz and her Arlington, Va., organization, Lucky Dog Animal Rescue.

Now, let's just get this out of the way: All this for animals? Seriously?

As the plane made its approach to San Juan, the landscape was colored with patches of blue, like the swimming pools you see from the sky in California. Only this blue was tarps. Tarps galore, more tarp blue than rooftop brown in some neighborhoods — a paint-by-number guide to the utter mess that Puerto Rico remains.


Tarps still cover many roofs in Puerto Rico. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

The situation on the island is an American disgrace. Nearly half the island still has no power. The elderly are suffering, children are hungry, homes are in shambles. Meanwhile, some of Washington's best and brightest are going to help animals? I have to admit it wasn't feeling so right.

Then I met Marie Angie Rivera. Her home town is still a disaster. Her own home flooded. And she, like all her neighbors, is working hard to get back to normal every day.

But some of the hardest things she saw after Maria were the families who brought their beloved pets to her shelter, PR Animals, because they couldn't afford to care for them or even find enough food for them.

"The surrenders. Oh, those were so hard to see," said Rivera, 34. "And when you give up a dog, it's like giving up hope that your life is going to be normal again soon."

So she was there on the tarmac, watching the dogs get loaded onto the plane. "It is helping people, not just animals," she said.

The founder of Lucky Dog, Horowitz — who really should step in and just run the United States because on the day the federal government shut down, she managed a massive operation with the efficiency of a field general and the devotion of Mother Teresa — knew she wanted to help more than animals.

After getting Southwest Airlines to agree to donate an entire round-trip flight for her animal rescue mission, she waited for months while the airline prioritized people over pets.

Once the demand for evacuations slowed, Southwest gave her a date — Jan. 20. And they staffed the entire flight — pilots, flight attendants, etc. — with folks who agreed to do it without pay.


Volunteers prepare carriers for the animals before they are loaded onto a Southwest Airlines flight between San Juan, Puerto Rico and Baltimore- Washington International Airport. The flight, which was donated by Southwest Airlines, carried 14,000 pounds of supplies for people and animals to the island. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

Meanwhile, her volunteers gathered dog food as well as people supplies to fill that plane: Clorox, wipes, trash bags, tampons and diapers. About 14,000 pounds of supplies for both the people and animals of Puerto Rico. Just about every single seat and overhead bin that didn't have a volunteer in it carried some kind of donation.

Once on the ground, the supplies were unloaded and the animals were crated, then carried on board and strapped into seats.

There were the yowls. The cats were absolutely furious during takeoff.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we'll be coming through the cabin shortly to get you some drinks," the flight attendant announced to the group of about 20 volunteers and media members. "And to say hi to the puppies."

It became a love fest. Flight attendant Janice Goravica took the no-pay job specifically to look for a new dog.

"My lab died, oh, it'll be four years in November," she said. "His name was Duke." She took a deep breath. "And I'm finally ready to look for a new dog. My daughter says it's time."

And within minutes after the seat belt sign was turned off, she was canoodling with a black lab named Coscu.


A dog named Rooki waits to be loaded onto the Southwest Airlines flight along with several dozen other animals. (Carolyn Van Houten/The Washington Post)

When we began our descent into Baltimore-Washington International Airport, a chorus of yowls erupted as at least 120 furry ears popped.

Once we were on the ground, the animals were loaded into a convoy of vans that headed into Shirlington, where an astounding crowd was waiting.

And I got that feeling again. Dozens of people standing in the dark, some waving flags and cheering as the vans pulled up. A welcoming committee embraced and cheered each animal as the names were announced.

Imagine if our country welcomed human refugees the same way.

I saw two Puerto Rican women watching the whole thing unfold.

Their families back home are still struggling, they told me. They make trips back to the island with suitcases stuffed full of supplies. How did they feel about Washington's first-world animal help when so many people are still hurting, and the rest of America seems to have forgotten them?

"It is beautiful," said Sonia Collazo, who has lived in Alexandria for 10 years and works for the federal government. "You cannot forget the dogs. When you forget the dogs, you forget what a good life means.

"My dog is not my pet. My dog is my family. Puerto Ricans, we love our dogs. Our satos. They are part of our culture, part of us," she said.

Her friend Ana Montalvo, who left Puerto Rico 12 years ago for Arlington and also works for the federal government, nodded. "And taking care of them is also like taking care of our people and our culture."

On Sunday, as the animals were lined up outside a PetSmart in Gaithersburg, Md., at a Lucky Dog adoption event, the Puerto Rican satos had a little celebrity cachet. Most of them were snatched up, even argued over.

The smart Scottie named Sir Francis, who suffered his displacement with a hint of haughty disbelief, found a new home with a couple who immediately bought him a kingly bed and considered renaming him Rico.

Rookie, a blond sato whose Puerto Rican foster mother was in pieces as she watched him being loaded at the airport, was adopted by a large, bearded man who carried him in his arms like a baby and kept saying: "This is the face of an angel."

One by one, permanent addresses were engraved on tags, leashes were fitted, tails wagged and wagged.

A few weren't adopted. You can still find them on the Lucky Dog website. One of those left behind on Sunday was my seatmate on the plane, a terrier mix with ridiculous bat ears who was found abandoned on a coffee farm during the hurricane.

Suddenly, I couldn't resist the urge to adopt her.

Welcome home, sato.

Twitter: @petulad