In the wake of the hurricanes that rampaged last month through Puerto Rico, New England animal shelters are rescuing hundreds of cats and dogs from the island and readying them to find new homes.
A massive effort organized by the Sterling Animal Shelter is set to fly around 200 cats and dogs into Worcester Regional Airport Wednesday night for distribution among several New England shelters.
In a separate effort, the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals-Angell on Monday night took in eight dogs from a Puerto Rican animal shelter, one week after it brought in 34 homeless cats from the island of St. John, which was also swept by storms last month.
“People don’t really think of the animals when it comes to disasters,” Sterling Animal Shelter executive director Leigh Grady said in a telephone interview Tuesday. “We knew that this was just going to be something that they needed help on.”
The Sterling organization has been working with a Puerto Rican shelter, All Sato Rescue (Sato is a common term for mixed-breed dogs on the island), for nearly 20 years. That relationship prompted Grady to work with the shelter after the hurricanes to bring up animals that need new homes.
While getting animals off the island was a priority for Grady and her counterparts at All Sato Rescue, actually pulling off a rescue in the midst of a crisis and with the communications infrastructure down proved to be a challenge.
“It’s been next to impossible to communicate with them. They still do not have cell service, they don’t have towers, they don’t have internet,” Grady said. “We’re relying on one or two people to communicate with us that barely have the ability to talk to their friends and family on the island to see if they’re OK.”
“It’s been a hurdle, to say the least, with getting through all of these nightmares,” she said. “But we’ve crossed all of our T’s, dotted our I’s, and as far as we know, they’re scheduled to come tomorrow.”
“We’re hoping that everything goes as planned. We’ve already rescheduled this one flight five times,” she said.
The animals will arrive in color-coded crates. Sterling Animal Shelter representatives picking up the four-legged cargo Wednesday will be joined by other New England shelters, including the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, the Coastal Humane Society, the Buddy Dog Humane Society, Cape Ann Animal Aid, Humane Society Waterville Area, and Boxer Rescue Inc.
The shelter crews will receive a police escort onto the tarmac to meet the jet loaded with furry passengers and distribute the animals. The animals will get temporary housing and medical evaluations, and will eventually be adopted.
“This has been something that we’ve been working on for almost three weeks, and there’s so many moving parts and so many logistics,” Grady said. “We wanted to make sure that if we were going to do it, we were going to do it the right way.”
“A lot of these animals have been waiting weeks, if not months, to come up here,” she said.
In addition to cats and dogs already in shelters in Puerto Rico before the hurricanes hit, many were rescued in the aftermath by All Sato workers. Three of the dogs taken in after the storm ended up giving birth in their rescuers’ homes, Grady said.
In total, Grady said, 180 to 210 animals will arrive Wednesday, 90 percent of them dogs.
The charter flight bringing the scores of animals to Massachusetts was made possible by donations sent to the Sterling shelter via a CrowdRise campaign, which covered the cost of jet fuel to bring the plane from Texas to Puerto Rico, and eventually Worcester. The airplane and pilot were donated by Texas-based Mission Miracle K9 Rescue.
Grady said that All Sato Rescue and the Sterling Animal Shelter could coordinate to bring hundreds more displaced cats and dogs from Puerto Rico in the coming weeks.
“We are getting a couple hundred of them this week, but we know that there are close to 300 in foster that are also waiting,” Grady said. “This is going to be our initial trip, and if we raise enough money, we’ll do another trip.”
Earlier this week, three adults and five 8- to 9-week-old puppies were brought to the MSPCA-Nevins Farm in Methuen and remained in quarantine Tuesday. They were driven there from St. Hubert’s Animal Welfare Center in Madison, N.J., after arriving from Puerto Rico Monday night.
“We’re doing what we have always done: ensuring we are ready and able to take in animals from areas of the world badly impacted by recent extreme weather,” MSPCA director of adoption centers and programs Mike Keiley said in a statement.
The mixed-breed dogs were already homeless and living in an animal shelter in Puerto Rico before hurricanes Irma and Maria tore across the island. The dogs were sent to find new homes, though, as shelter officials there are expecting an surge of animal surrenders in the wake of the storms.
The dogs “appear to be in good health” Tuesday, and the puppies are “playful and social” after their arrival at Nevins Farm, MSPCA spokesman Rob Halpin said in an e-mail.
All of the dogs will be medically evaluated and spayed or neutered at the farm this week to address their health before they are put up for adoption.
“We’ll do our best to ensure all of these dogs are placed in wonderful homes,” Keiley said. “Now more than ever the international animal welfare organization needs to come together to ensure we can protect the most vulnerable animals among us, and I’m so proud that we’re doing that.”
As for the cats rescued last week, 14 of the 18 made available for adoption so far were either adopted or had pending adoptions Tuesday, Halpin said, while the remaining 16 have “kitty colds” and remain with the MSPCA.
The kittens’ upper respiratory infections are being treated with antibiotics. They will be made available for adoption “as they get well,” he said.