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Dogs rescued from Puerto Rico find a temporary home in Dedham

Sato Project founder Christina Beckles comforts a dog that needs rescuing on the Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico in March.

Sato Project

Sato Project founder Christina Beckles comforts a dog that needs rescuing on the Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico in March.

It was 2:30 a.m., and Jill Greblick and Christina Beckles were at a pet clinic in Puerto Rico, getting dogs ready one by one for their flight to the mainland.

Rescued from sidewalks, trash cans, and the infamous “Dead Dog Beach,” where they faced a life of abuse and neglect, the pooches had been at the clinic for weeks. For the 12 dogs, Greblick and Beckles said they supplied 12 crates with food, water, and a medical report, then loaded them into SUVs before driving to the airport.

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By 6 a.m., the dogs were on a plane heading to the Northeast, the latest beneficiaries of the Sato Project. But Greblick and Beckles hadn’t finished their work; later in the day, they were scouring the beach for more dogs to rescue.

Beckles, president and founder of the Brooklyn-based Sato Project, has made numerous trips to Puerto Rico, but the mid-March trip was the first for Greblick, who manages Sato’s shelter in Dedham.

“It was overwhelming,” Greblick said. “There was a piece of the beach that was very cozy, and families were there having picnics. And then there is this sinister part of it, too. We walked a little bit away from the people and there was a skull from a dead dog.”

But Greblick also knew that her trip would make a difference. Most of the 12 dogs shipped from that trip, and about 60 percent of Sato Project’s rescued dogs, go to a shelter in Dedham. From there, some are placed in homes around the Boston area, while the others find homes in the New York area through a network of foster homes.

Since the Sato Project (“sato’’ is Puerto Rican slang for stray dog) was founded in 2011, it has rescued about 1,000 dogs, Beckles said. There are 250,000 stray dogs in Puerto Rico, she estimated, but only five shelters to care for them. A dog that goes to a shelter there has about a 99 percent chance of being euthanized, she said.

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In contrast, the verdant Sato Project Sanctuary on 200 acres in Dedham is like a paradise for dogs, Greblick and Beckles said.

Each dog is assigned a run, which includes a 100- by 100-foot fenced outdoor field and an individual ventilated indoor area to rest. There are a dozen such spaces at the shelter.

The dogs don’t stay in Dedham long. Photos are posted on social media sites and most are adopted within a week or two of arrival, making room for the next group, said Joan Bachrach, the shelter’s volunteer coordinator.

“For a shelter it’s wonderful, but it’s a shelter and the dogs know it,” said Bachrach. “Dogs thrive in a home, and they are eager to be adopted.”

As Bachrach spoke, Norwood residents Lauren and Rob Ryan arrived to look at a Labrador mix named Ray.

As the couple met the dog, a volunteer asked them questions about their routines. “I always want to go to sleep at night knowing [the dogs] are in the best possible care,” Greblick said.

Rob Ryan said he and his wife wanted to rescue a dog and had visited several facilities. The one in Dedham was the biggest, he said, while his wife noted how much of the Sato shelter was outside.

“I thought Ray was a great dog, very playful and healthy, and it’s great what they’re doing here,” Rob Ryan said.

Lauren Ryan said she found Ray on petfinder.com. “If we can offer this dog a better place to live and a better home, that really makes me happy,” she added.

The idea for the Sato Project began when Beckles accompanied her husband on a business trip to Puerto Rico eight years ago.

“He told me I was going to be upset when I saw the dogs,” Beckles said. “I got down there and . . . felt overwhelmed and helpless.”

Beckles began feeding dogs and getting them medical care, and wondering what else she could do. At the time, she ran a consulting business in New York, but sent repeated e-mails to rescue groups working in Puerto Rico.

“I had no idea how big the issue was until I got back, and the more I learned the more compelled I was to want to help,” Beckles said.

She tried volunteering with other groups for a time, until she decided that her passion was working with these dogs. She began the Sato Project in 2011, working with foster families in New York.

The Dedham connection grew out of the efforts of James Halpin, former chief executive officer of BJs Wholesale Club Inc.

Halpin said he purchased a 300-acre farm property in Dedham during his “workaholic days” as CEO, and went there to relax after he retired in 1999. He established a kennel on the property and in 2012 took on Greblick as volunteer coordinator. But he was overwhelmed with the work, and he closed the facility in November 2012.

Halpin had heard about the Sato Project when animals were sent to his kennel and a shelter in Salem. When he read an April 2013 article about the project, he contacted Beckles and they talked about using his facility for her group. Halpin hired Greblick as manager and reopened the kennel as the Sato Project Sanctuary last August.

Beckles travels to Puerto Rico every three weeks to participate in rescues and oversee the transport of the dogs to the mainland.

Most of her work is at Dead Dog Beach, also known as Playa Lucia, on the southeastern coast of Puerto Rico. When Beckles first visited in 2006, there were 300 dogs on the beach dying of starvation or being abused by beach users. Today, Beckles said, there are fewer than 10 at any one time, though more are dumped there every day.

Rescues start with Beckles and her crew of volunteers approaching a dog.

Many have trouble trusting humans, so Beckles and company use caution. If they can get a dog to eat out of their hands and put a leash on it, they drive it to Sato’s medical facility, where a veterinarian checks it for diseases. Some animals need care for weeks.

The cost of getting each dog off the beach, vetted, vaccinated, spayed or neutered, and ready to fly is $500, Beckles said. To support the organization, she holds fund-raisers, including boxing matches in which she fights. Adoption fees also help cover the costs, but Halpin said he winds up writing a check to support the shelter every month.

Seeing the rescued dogs brings joy, Halpin said.

“Some are timid and it takes them a week or a month to get them out of their shell so that they can run again and they feel safe,” Halpin said.

Now that she has made a trip to Puerto Rico, Greblick vowed to return.

Getting to see the strays in the habitat from which they are rescued was a profound experience, she said.

“It was very eye-opening to see what they all go through before they come here,” Greblick said. “I have a different appreciation for what the dogs go through for sure. This is like Nirvana for them.”

For more information or to donate, visit www.thesatoproject.org. Dave Eisenstadter can be reached at eisen.globe@gmail.com.
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