“I love this dog, I love this dog, I love this dog,” Adrienne Galler Lastra repeated tearfully while kissing Luna goodbye.
Choked with emotion, Lastra was at the San Juan airport preparing Luna to fly with four other rescued dogs to the mainland US for adoption. As the director of the Puerto Rican shelter Amigos de los Animales, this tearful goodbye was actually a happy moment, as it marks the culmination of her hard work.
Luna’s journey started several months earlier, when she was rescued from the streets of Loiza, one of the poorest municipalities in Puerto Rico. Filthy and malnourished, she was brought to the shelter run out of Lastra’s home in Piñones Beach. I recently spent a week here to learn more about this stray dog rescue organisation.
“Watch your step!” Lastra warned me as I entered her home for the first time. Heeding her warning, I carefully waded through a small group of dogs running around my feet and a minefield of tiny turds scattered across the floor. Cluttered with dog carriers, cleaning supplies, and veterinary medicines, it was obvious this was no ordinary home.
Having safely made it across the living room, I joined Lastra at the kitchen table for a cup of coffee. “We currently have about 70 dogs,” she told me, “And we are at our maximum.”
“This is Pedra,” Lastra said, pointing to a scruffy little dog sitting under her chair. “She was dropped off at the gate two days ago, they left her in a cage. I have already had her sterilised and now she is ready for adoption.”
“We’re going to do an adoption event soon,” Lastra continued. “We’re going to do it so that people know where we are, so that we can increase our adaptions hopefully, and so people can see the animals we have.”
Unfortunately, most dogs harboured at the shelter also have histories of abandonment, abuse, or injury. Colorado, a large pit bull, is one of the friendliest dogs at the shelter. The scars covering his face are a constant reminder of his prior abuse being used as a bait dog.
Another dog, Perla, sustained a fractured spine after being hit by a car. She was left laying in a ditch for a week before being rescued and brought to the shelter by some good samaritans.
By some estimates, the number of strays has doubled to about 500,00 since Hurricane Maria. The recent earthquakes further exacerbated the number of strays as people abandoned their pets as well as homes.
“The stray dog problem is so severe here, it capture’s everyone’s eye,” Sperry Brown, an employee of the shelter told me. Brown walks dogs each morning, then performs daily shelter maintenance duties.
Operating mostly from donations, the shelter relies heavily on volunteers. While welcome at any time, volunteers are especially encouraged to attend the weekly Saturday shelter cleanups and Wednesday beach walks with the rescued dogs.
Lastra’s main objective of course, is to find a forever home for as many of her rescued dogs as possible. Due to the economic conditions and culture on the island however, she often has difficulty adopting her dogs out locally. She therefore has teamed up with the New Hampshire rescue Hearts and Tails, who facilitate the adoption of her Puerto Rican dogs to the mainland US.
In preparation for flying her dogs to the US for adoption, Lastra makes sure each dog is vaccinated, treated for disease and sterilised. She works with a local vet who discounts his services to rescue groups on the island.
“He is absolutely a wonderful vet,” Lastra said of Dr. Roberto Morales. “He helps us a lot. He takes a loss by attending to us shelters, but karma is good for him, he always has a full office.”
Thankfully for Luna, not long after her flight to New Hampshire, she was adopted by a loving family who will now have a best friend for life.
Lastra has a message for anyone who wishes to come out to the shelter and volunteer.
“I’m my own secretary,” she said, “If anybody wants to come and help, we need volunteers. Come out to Puerto Rico! Amigos de los Animales. I’m Adri, I’m the shelter director, I’m a little whacko but I love the dogs.”
Photos by Ralph Quinonez.