In Puerto Rico, they are called satos — unwanted, often abused mongrel dogs that have been dumped on a beach in the southeast corner of the island, called Playa Lucia.
Hundreds have roamed the sand in unruly, starving packs for so long that the locals have given the area another name: Dead Dog Beach.
Christina Beckles has worked over the past 10 years to save the satos from their grim fate. The New York woman’s Sato Project has taken in as many feral dogs as it could, gotten them vaccinated, neutered and microchipped, then found new homes for the rehabilitated canines on the U.S. mainland.
Then Hurricane Maria came.
The storm created a massive humanitarian crisis on Puerto Rico, knocking out power to the entire island, leaking raw sewage into flooded streets, taking more than a dozen lives and threatening hundreds more.
Beckles returned to Puerto Rico late last week. The crate and kibble-filled house that served as the office of the Sato Project, was six feet under sewage-filled water and crushed by a tree. She and her husband face a mammoth rebuilding effort.
“Everything we own is gone,” she told The Washington Post in an email. “All of our Sato Project inventory is gone — microchips, food, leashes, harnesses, transport equipment and supplies. The water is now rising (and we do not know why?) and sewage is now flowing out through the toilets. Mold has started to grow.”
But she said the scene was worse at Playa Lucia, a place where hundreds of wild dogs had once roamed the sand.
When Beckles set foot on the beach for the first time after the hurricane she saw … nothing.
“All we wanted to do was go to the beach to look for our feral dogs,” she wrote on her Facebook page. “Sadly we did not find them and our hearts are heavy with the reality upon seeing the utter devastation at the beach — they did not survive…..”
For Beckles and the volunteers of the Sato Project, it’s a heartbreaking, almost existential question: Are there any more feral dogs from Dead Dog Beach to save?
Pondering that will have to wait. The next few weeks are dedicated to finding homes for dogs that were already in the Sato Project’s pipeline.
Before Maria hit, one of the volunteers, who lives in the mountains near Caguas, took in 53 dogs. The animals rode out the storm in crates balanced on concrete blocks as the water rose — a stressful experience, but a survivable one.
They spent Friday trying to conduct “the most epic of freedom flights for the dogs,” sending 60 to the mainland.
The plane was provided by Wings of Rescue, which flies animals from overcrowded shelters to empty ones, where they have a better chance of being adopted. They also received help from the Humane Society of the United States, which is sending other sheltered dogs to the U.S. mainland on the plane.
It will be the Sato Project’s most ambitious flight in six years.
Beckles first heard of satos in 2007, she told the New York Times. Her husband, a stuntman, was on a shoot in Puerto Rico when his driver hit a pregnant dog — on purpose. At the time, there were an estimated 150,000 dogs in the U.S. territory — and just a handful of animal shelters. Nearly every dog brought to one was euthanized.
Volunteer agencies had either focused their efforts on spay and neuter programs or didn’t have the resources to rescue large numbers of dogs.
“I went out to the beach with food for the dogs, and the people there looked at me like I was feeding rats,” Beckles told the Times in 2012. “It touched a nerve in me so bad that I called every rescue organization there was and asked if I could help them do public relations, donate, anything.”
She volunteered for two of them, before starting her nonprofit organization in 2011. The Sato Project names every dog on the beach and refills water and kibble stations.
They provide emergency veterinary care, and spay and neuter dogs. Healthy dogs that can be adopted out are flown to the U.S. mainland. The average cost is about $1,000 per dog.
On the Sato Project’s website, the group acknowledges that “the government has its hands full with human to human violence, and animal abuse is just not a priority.” Yabucoa, the home of Dead Dog Beach, is one of the poorest of Puerto Rico’s 78 municipalities, which entered bankruptcy in May before being battered by Maria this month.
Stray dogs were an afterthought for the hardest hit islands in the Caribbean. But what becomes of them now is not just a concern for people with big hearts or a soft spot for puppies.
After Hurricane Irma devastated Barbuda, its 1,800 residents were transported to the larger sister island of Antigua. But their animals were left behind. They’ve been getting hungry and, as Time magazine reported, growing feral.
Karen Corbin, president of the Antigua and Barbuda Humane Society, told Time that the hungry dogs eventually turned on the horses, cows, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry now roaming free across the island. The magazine detailed an organized attempt to feed the large packs of roving dogs before the island residents return — an attempt to save the dogs’ lives and the farmers’ livelihoods.
Three hundred miles away, in Puerto Rico, Beckles and volunteers with the Sato Project were pulling off their own rescue attempt.
Most of the dogs that will be taking the flight to the mainland had been rescued before the storm. But one — she’s been named “Tracy Mama Warren” because she’s pregnant — somehow survived the storm and was found on the beach Tuesday.
Beckles said she knows more dogs are out there. And it will be even harder to help them in coming months.
“We are all still in a state of shock, and for the first time in my life I do not know what our next step will be,” she wrote in an email to The Post.
“I am frightened for the Puerto Rican people and the animals that are out there possibly in pain and suffering with no access to food or water. They desperately need help and no one can get to them.”