Good boys

Covid-19 is affecting shelter dogs — for better and for worse

Animal rescue groups explain how the pandemic has changed operations.

The Covid-19 pandemic is affecting pets — luckily, often in a good way. Soon after much of New York City began sheltering in place, local animal rescue operations experienced an unprecedented surge in foster applications. For example, the nonprofit Foster Dogs Inc. reported a 1,000 percent increase in foster applications in March 2020 compared to March 2019.

It’s a trend that’s seen across the country. When Inverse reached out to the ASPCA, its president and CEO Matt Bershadker replied that since March 15, nearly 1,600 people have completed the ASPCA’s online foster application. That’s an increase of nearly 400 percent compared to 2019.

That means more pets taken out of shelters and into temporary homes. Because there are so many animals with foster caregivers as a result of Covid-19, the ASPCA is hosting a “National Adoption Weekend” from June 5 to June 7 to encourage people to adopt from home.

“In recent weeks, the ASPCA saw a nearly 70 percent increase in animals going into foster care through our NYC and Los Angeles foster programs compared to the same period in 2019,” Berdshadker says. “We have seen shelters across the country implement innovative solutions to place animals in temporary or permanent homes while ensuring the safety of their staff, their animals, and their communities.”

But the pandemic has also proved to be a challenge for some organizations, creating a stumbling block before an essential step: actually rescuing the animal.

Tara Steinberg is the communications manager of the Sato Project. Since 2011, this animal rescue organization has flown over 4,000 dogs off Puerto Rico and to the United States, where they’re very often already adopted by a family waiting for them. Through their No Dog Left Behind project, they’ve also reunited 200 dogs with owners who have had to flee the island after a natural disaster. But there are still an estimated 500,000 stray dogs roaming the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico.

Below is an interview with Steinberg about the Sato Project, the challenges Covid-19 has brought, and the silver linings they have found.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Why is the organization called the Sato Project?

“Sato” is a local term in Puerto Rico for a stray dog. It’s not traditionally considered a term of endearment. One of the many goals of the Sato Project is to reimagine that term and make it an empowering word rather than an insult.

The Sato Project has concentrated its efforts at a place called Dead Dog Beach. Why is that?

Dead Dog Beach is this area in a region of the island called Yabucoa. It’s in the southeastern corner and is the poorest region of the island. Dead Dog Beach is really named Playa Lucia. It became known as a place where people could abandon their unwanted dogs.

It’s at the end of a very long road, so it’s very isolated. So, it used to be this place where people could drive down the road, dump out their animal, and leave unseen. It is illegal to abandon an animal in Puerto Rico — so when people do it, they try to do it in places where they can’t get caught. Dead Dog Beach became one of those places, and it happened over and over again.

That’s why it gradually acquired that name — once dogs are there, they most likely die because, as it’s a tropical beach, there’s no freshwater; no food. It is not a great place for a stray animal.

Has Covid-19 presented new challenges for the project?

Basically, what Covid-19 has done is essentially locked up our rescue operations. Because of flight restrictions, we are unable to fly dogs off the island. That creates many problems. One problem is that many of these dogs would have already been in their “forever homes” by now.

Sato dogs prepare for their "freedom flight." The Dogist

Instead, they have to stay in Puerto Rico, and we’re paying boarding costs from them every day. We do not have a physical shelter of our own. We partner with two veterinary clinics, and that’s where the majority of our dogs stay, along with our small network of foster families in Puerto Rico.

The other problem is affected by the fact that we are limited in the number of dogs we can take at any one time. So, without flying dogs off the island, we’re very restricted in how many new dogs we can rescue. That’s very heartbreaking for us — it’s really hard to not be able to take more dogs into the program like we’re used to. Those are our biggest challenges right now.

Has this challenge come with any silver linings? Have you gotten more requests from people wanting to adopt or foster?

We have definitely been overwhelmed with these requests. It’s been really hard for us to say, “No, we don’t have a dog for you to foster!”

But this outpouring of people wanting to foster inspired us to create a new problem. We call it our Foster From Afar program. We post the stories of some of our dogs currently in Puerto Rico, and people can donate to help cover the care for these dogs. Originally, we weren’t really sure how this virtual fostering program would go, but our community has really responded to it.

[Since the Foster From Afar program launched on April 15, 624 participants have signed up to donate, with 66 of those signing up supporting more than one dog.]

We’re also now running a food pantry for pet owners in Yabucoa to help support pet owners who have been affected by Covid-19 and might have trouble affording pet food right now. This is part of our effort to address the overall crisis of abandonment at its core.

What are the most immediate needs of the Sato Project?

What we really need are donations. I know that’s not what people always like to hear, but that’s the reality of our situation. As soon as we are able to return to some sense of normalcy with our operations, the more donations we have means the more we’ll be able to hit the ground running — flying dogs off the island and rescuing as many as we can.

Sato dogs meeting their "forever families" in August 2019.

We’re already in the planning stages of our next “freedom flight.” We currently have just over 90 dogs in the program, and we want to be able to fly as many of them off as possible. That means renting an entire airplane — that’s how we normally fly our dogs off — and those airplanes are expensive. Our “freedom flights” are one of the most exciting aspects of our work because they’re really the final step in delivering a dog to its new home.

What accomplishments of the Sato Project are you and your team especially proud of?

Dead Dog Beach is now essentially cleared of dogs. There are still animals that are abandoned there, but it has gotten much harder to do that thanks to our local efforts. We’ve been able to expand our efforts into the wider community of Yabucoa.

Another important achievement came right after Hurricane Maria. In a single year after Hurricane Maria, we rescued and flew 1,500 dogs off the island. Before that, we averaged around 450 dogs a year.

We’re a very small team, based both on the ground in Puerto Rico and in Brooklyn, New York, and I think as an organization we’ve been able to evolve. As Puerto Rico continues to face so many crises, we’ve continued to adjust and figure out how we can help. For example, after a huge earthquake hit Puerto Rico in January, we were able to evacuate over 250 animals off the island within the first month. These were pulled from a municipal shelter and another nonprofit shelter that had been severely affected by the earthquake.

We’re also extremely proud of the community we’ve built in the decade since the Sato Project was founded. We have an amazing network of supporters and volunteers. On the East Coast there’s a waitlist of people waiting to adopt our dogs.

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