A rescue dog’s behavior can be revealing. Shyness around people, anxiety in crowded environments, or a persistent need for human contact can give some insight into their pasts. But for 7-month-old Sam, his biggest tell is that he rarely lies down to rest—which says a lot about the Puerto Rican dog, who at one point was unable to even stand.
In Puerto Rico, hundreds of thousands of dogs are without homes. In November 2017, like many strays, Sam was struck by a car.
Sam was found along a busy highway in the northern municipality of Hatillo; he was suffering, alone and rapidly losing blood from the impact. Fortunately, someone had phoned in the incident to Rabito Kontento, a local shelter widely known for specializing in rehabilitating Puerto Rican dogs from dire conditions.
Shelter volunteers quickly scooped up Sam and transported him to emergency care. Three of his legs were badly lacerated, and one major fracture couldn’t be mended until an open wound healed. After three weeks of treatments that included laser therapy, Sam—named for the wholesale retailer near where he was rescued—was up and moving.
“It’s a miracle he’s walking after having three legs destroyed,” says Mariel Rojas, who founded the shelter in 2012. His recovery is still a work in progress (when idle, Sam keeps his left front leg lifted, hovering just lightly above ground), but his condition is stable, Rojas says.
After a quick rest, Sam hops up and reliably heads straight for the nearest person for pets and cuddles, melting especially for behind-the-ear scratches. He’s ready for a forever home, but Rojas says there’s not been any interest so far.
It’s not that Sam isn’t adorable or family friendly—he is undeniably both. But the effects of Hurricane Maria continue to batter the island, including unemployment, economic strife and a mass exodus that has contributed to roughly a 10 percent population loss in the years since. The crisis has wrought more abandoned pets than usual, despite the fact that abandoning a pet is illegal in Puerto Rico.
A Countrywide Crisis
Similar to certain states in the U.S., there’s language in Puerto Rico’s laws against animal cruelty that prohibits the abandonment of pets, and Rabito Kontento even requires new owners to sign an agreement acknowledging the law. But abandonment still happens, and all too often. The shelter pursued legal action against a perpetrator once, Rojas says. A year of court dates resulted in fines that weren’t paid and community service hours that were never completed.
Sam’s story is a distressing example of what happens to deserted pets. In 2017 alone, Rabito Kontento took in more than 270 strays, the vast majority of them in critical, life-or-death conditions. As a no-kill shelter, Rabito Kontento advocates specifically for animals that otherwise might be euthanized.
Specializing in this intense degree of rehabilitation fuels another aspect of the shelter’s ethos: They don’t believe in cages. Behind Rabito Kontento’s small building, there’s a fenced-in patio with a row of brightly colored doggie condos as its centerpiece. The space isn’t overcrowded; fewer than 10 dogs relax on the ramps that lead to their homes.
“They’ve suffered enough,” Rojas says. “Once they get here, they’re going to be happy…They deserve to be happy animals.”
Helping Puerto Rican Pets
To keep the on-site population at a comfortable level and still do as much good as possible, the shelter relies on foster homes for the adoption-ready dogs.
The histories of Rabito Kontento pups are often utterly heartbreaking. They include Faith, now on three legs after an irreparable fracture; a litter of puppies left behind to fend for themselves; and Otto, who lost his nose to infection. In the care of Rabito Kontento, though, they’re all healthy and thriving today.
The shelter also counts Molly, a Shih Tzu who’s part of their “Echalo a Korrer” initiative, among their successes. After a near-fatal fall, Molly could no longer walk or use the bathroom without a human’s help. But through the project, which translates to “get dogs running,” she got a custom-fit wheelchair made with PVC pipe and recycled training wheels. Through this program, the shelter has outfitted at least 72 dogs with wheelchairs, and Molly has become the official dog of the shelter.
Rabito Kontento also maintains a community education program with much of its outreach focused on youth (around the holidays, they encourage kids to donate old wheels for Echalo a Korrer), and throughout the past few months, Rojas and her crew have been organizing trips to areas like Morovis and Utuado, located in the mountainous center of the island where aid has been most lacking, to deliver veterinary services, supplies and lots of love for the town’s animals.
All these efforts are realized through a team of seemingly tireless volunteers who are incredibly dedicated—they often find themselves working off the clock, fielding rescue requests from neighbors, acquaintances and strangers who heard they work for Rabito Kontento.
Rabito Kontento doesn’t limit its aid to only Puerto Rican dogs, though. They take in cats and kittens too, as well as the occasional rabbit, turtle or pig. Sam has buddied up with one of those special-case rescues: a goat named Pancha. Call it an odd coupling, but the pair get on well, and the other rescues at the shelter enjoy Pancha being there, too.
Field trips are also part of their program. The expansive grassy field by the historic Castillo San Fellipe del Morro in Old San Juan, about an hour’s drive east of Hatillo, is a favorite for Sam. Alert and wide-eyed, Sam explores the extremities of the fortress, which overlooks the Atlantic Ocean. Besides a gleeful roll in the grass or two, Sam opts to stay on his feet, content in his resilience.
Whether they’re co-living at the shelter (with daily attention from the team) or cozied up in a caring foster home, the Rabito Kontento rescues are getting the care they need to not only recuperate, but to find joy, feel loved and flourish. After enduring immense trauma, these rescues get to be dogs again in Rabito Kontento’s hands.
Jhoni Jackson is a freelance writer based in San Juan, Puerto Rico, where she’s grateful that her two oddball cats, an aging but feisty Chihuahua, and an energetic new puppy permit her to live in a home that is clearly under their total control.