A handful of dogs that had seen their share of hard knocks found happier times last month at Monmouth Regional High School.
The dogs started their lives as satos, or street dogs, roaming Puerto Rico's cities, towns and beaches. But on May 9, for the second year in a row, students and teachers at the high school hosted a "Save the Satos" event that drew attention to the satos' sad stories, raised money for rescue groups and even found a few lucky dogs homes of their own.
Sandra Orefice is a teacher at Monmouth Regional and co-adviser to the school's Spanish Club and Animal Friendly Organization, the two clubs that organized the event.
Orefice said she first learned about Puerto Rico's sato dogs through an article she read a couple of years ago. It described places like "dead dog beach," a stretch of coastline near the city of Yabucoa in southeast Puerto Rico where animals are left to starve to death in the sweltering heat.
She said the article told the story of a raid by animal-control officers on a housing
complex that resulted in the capture of 60 or so dogs and cats.
"The way they got rid of them was to throw them over a bridge," Orefice said, "because there's a price tag on how many animals you can get rid of."
Moved, Orefice did some research and learned of two nonprofits that were working to solve Puerto Rico's stray problem through spay-and-neuter campaigns and adoptions. The two groups, Save a Sato and Amigos de los Animales (Friends of the Animals), frequently partnered with mainland U.S. rescue organizations to find dogs homes outside of Puerto Rico, where there just aren't enough willing adopters, she said.
When Monmouth County animal rescue organization Wag On Inn expressed interest in partnering with Amigos de los Animales, Orefice saw it as a chance to make a difference close to home. She facilitated communication between the groups, and Wag On Inn started fostering and rehoming dogs that the Puerto Rican nonprofit flew to the mainland.
Janice Fisher, a volunteer with Wag On Inn, said the process of bringing
the dogs to the mainland is easy -- they just pick the pups up from the airport -- and the dogs are surprisingly healthy and happy, despite what they've been through.
Fisher and Orefice both said the dogs from Puerto Rico tend to make exceptional pets.
"And they're just such great dogs," said Orefice, who has adopted two dogs from Puerto Rico. "They're just so grateful, you can kind of tell."
Fisher said that while the Wag On Inn volunteers bend over backward to get any dog adopted and are happy every time they do, the satos' long journeys make their successes even sweeter.
"When you know what they came from, that they were actually born on a hot beach with no food," their happy endings seem "a little special," Fisher said.
Orefice had helped Amigos de los Animales connect with a New Jersey rescue group, but she wanted to do more.
She and a colleague put their heads together and brainstormed ways to get the passionate group of high schoolers in Monmouth Regional's Animal Friendly Organization involved in an awareness-building fundraising event, Orefice said.
The school's Spanish club joined in the effort, "and it just kind of snowballed and got bigger," she said.
Last spring, the students and teachers hosted their first "Save the Satos" dog show and fair, and raised about $1,800 for Amigos de los Animales and Save a Sato, Orefice said. The students "jumped on board with it right away," she said. "They're such a great group of kids."
This year's event was even bigger, Orefice said.
Around 400 people and 150 dogs attended, she said, and the students again raised almost $2,000 for the Puerto Rican rescue groups.
Representatives from Oakhurst Veterinary Hospital, Little Silver Animal Hospital and Red Bank Veterinary Hospital gave presentations on everything from animal acupuncture to proper pet body mass, and lots of vendors showed off the latest in specialty goods for furry friends.
The event's amateur dog show included a parade of pups, some in costume, some flaunting their natural good looks and some performing tricks, Orefice said.
Plenty of the participants were rescues themselves: Moxie, a former sato dog who lost the use of both her back legs and now uses a two-wheeled cart to get around, took home an award for best-looking dog.
One of the lucky dogs was YuYu, a brindled mutt that Wag On Inn volunteer Janice Fisher said was one of two puppies from a college campus in Puerto Rico. When a student found the dogs, abandoned and starving, another sibling had already died. Amigos de los Animales managed to get YuYu to the mainland, where Wag On Inn was waiting.
Fisher's daughter Courtney Kays and Kays' husband fell in love with YuYu during the event. The couple renamed him Oscar, and Kays said the dog has already fit right into the family. She said that despite Oscar's undoubtedly difficult start in life, he's not aggressive in the least. He eats next to the couple's other dog, Lucy, and loves to play in the backyard.
Oscar is "a happy and loving dog," Kays said, "and we now can't imagine our home without him there."
Orefice said she felt the event also succeeded in making more people aware of the satos' plight. The lineup of adoptable dogs, she said, showed people that "instead of going to a store and spending $1,000 on a puppy," they can pay a small adoption fee and get a beautiful pet from a shelter, whether it's a dog from Puerto Rico or one of the many local pets who need homes.
It's a great choice, she said, no matter where the animals are from.