Imagine what the world of animal sheltering must have been like in the 1970s (I know, some of you weren’t even born yet, but stay with me!). Chances are your community didn’t have a beautiful, state-of-the-art shelter that was open and inviting to the public, provided humane housing and enrichment for each of its animal residents, and was designed to maximize lifesaving in every respect. More likely, your local animal shelter—“the pound,” to be more accurate—was little more than a renovated warehouse or other unwanted space retrofitted with some chain-link fencing for makeshift kennels—possibly windowless—likely not properly heated, cooled or ventilated; and most certainly located near the town dump or on some other cheap, undesirable plot of land.
Your community as a whole probably wasn’t very “animal-evolved” either. Sure, people loved their pets, but it’s likely they had a more utilitarian view of them—dogs roamed, cats typically worked for their supper. Puppies and kittens were everywhere, since widespread early spay/neuter wasn’t a “thing” yet. There were probably few, if any, dog parks, doggie spas, cat harnesses, pet strollers—who would have even imagined such things? There were certainly dedicated people working hard to improve the lives of animals, but they faced huge uphill battles—zero resources, zero infrastructure and little in the way of public support for the cause.
Thankfully, much of America has progressed light years from where we were decades ago, but there are still places in the world that are much closer to 1970s animal sheltering than present day. I recently had the opportunity to travel to a place where the few animal shelters that exist were left behind as the mainland animal welfare community raced past them without ever looking back—Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico’s nine animal shelters take in tens of thousands of animals each year, and adopt out only a tiny fraction. While amazing, caring employees struggle to make life as positive for each animal as possible, disease prevention mechanisms are poorly understood and difficult to implement, stress reduction and enrichment are foreign concepts, the most basic statistics aren’t being kept, adoption isn’t seen by the public as a viable option, facilities are not designed for humane animal holding, spay/neuter infrastructure is limited and community engagement through volunteer and foster programs is seemingly beyond reach.
Thankfully, a huge ray of sunshine has fallen on Puerto Rico in the form of the HSUS Sister Shelter Project. The brainchild of The HSUS’s small but mighty Humane State team, the project was born out of a simple concept—what if each Puerto Rico shelter was paired with a mainland shelter or two that can relate to its struggles and provide the concrete guidance and support needed to bring them up to modern (mainland) standards? Tara Loller, fearless leader of the Humane State team, dreamed up the concept and enlisted Maddie’s Fund to help finance it. Kim Alboum, who coordinates all HSUS emergency pet placements, scoured her list of shelter partners to find just the right matches for each Puerto Rico shelter, and recruited 11 mainland shelters (see below) to participate. Then in February, each of the stateside sister shelters flew staff to Puerto Rico and fanned out across the island for their first in-person meetings and tours of their respective sister facilities, bringing education, inspiration and hope to some of our extended country’s neediest animal welfare professionals.
What did they find? Without question they encountered desperate need, but they also saw overwhelming compassion and dedication from the people caring for Puerto Rico’s homeless animals each and every day. I had the privilege of accompanying Dr. Nicole Fedderson and Scott Crawford from Monmouth County SPCA to the Capitan Correa Animal Control Center in Arecibo (home of the Very Large Array from the movie Contact, for you movie buffs out there!). Tina Lopez, a vet tech educated on the mainland, gave us the grand tour, along with her director, Carlos Casalduc, and other staff members. Director Casalduc, I should note, works a full day in the shelter, then leaves each evening to work the night shift at a local bar, since the shelter doesn’t have enough money to pay him a salary; that is certainly a dedication to the animals that I am never likely to match.
Yes, there are plenty of things we identified right away that need improvement—vaccination on intake and better isolation and quarantine practices, a separate area for cats, enrichment for each of the animals. But it was also obvious right away how much pride the staff takes in their facility, keeping it immaculately clean and clutter-free (an observation made in every other facility visited islandwide). They champion adoption opportunities for individual animals and recognize the importance of assisting their community as much as possible with low-cost vaccination and spay/neuter clinics. (Our tour halted for a bit when a citizen brought in her dog suffering from an apparent poisoning; she couldn’t afford the fee quoted by a local veterinarian, so Tina ran fluids herself and got him started on the road to recovery.) They were open and receptive to the new tools and techniques Monmouth County SPCA brought along with them, including new surgical equipment, the latest flea and tick medications, even handling equipment that would seem old school to us but was totally new to them. (Scott gave an impromptu cat-netting class with the Freeman Net he had brought, and the staff was thrilled to watch and practice themselves.) While they have a long way to go, there is no doubt that there’s no shortage of dedication and commitment to improving.
So what’s next? Some of the issues the Puerto Rico shelters face are larger than any one sister shelter can tackle on their own—for those, The HSUS is committed to continuing its work improving infrastructure and making positive change islandwide. But for more basic but still critical needs like specific intake and management protocols, enrichment tools, social media strategies and much more, the sister shelters will be an ongoing source of education, advice and guidance, providing ears to bounce ideas off of and likely the occasional shoulder to cry on for the three-year duration of the pilot program, if not much, much longer.
Wishing you could participate in the Sister Shelter Project? You don’t have to wait for The HSUS to bring a pilot like this to your community! There are certainly shelters or other groups in need right in your own backyard—some wonderful shelters like the San Francisco SPCA are shining examples of how to “adopt” a struggling shelter nearby and partner together to improve animal welfare (see “A tale of two cities” for more on how they did it). At the very least, apply to become an HSUS Emergency Placement Partner, expanding your organization’s lifesaving reach beyond your shelter walls. We all can use a friend to lean on, now and then—don’t pass up your chance to show some “sisterhood” to another group in need!
Special thanks to the mainland shelters who participate in our Sister Shelter Project: