Striving for Understanding
By: Katherine Tejeda
After two years at UPRM, I ended up moving back to Florida after changing my major. Even there, I couldn’t keep the thought of the many stray animals I had seen out of my mind. I contacted Gloria Marine, who had helped me with Blanquita, and she gave me the contact information of the organization she had been involved with for years, the Federacion Protectora de Animals de Puerto Rico, or the FEPA. I wanted to understand more why there were so many stray animals out in the streets.
I spoke to the president of the FEPA, Michelle Cintron. Our phone conversation was a lengthy and enlightening one. I asked her about the reputation Puerto Rico had garnered in the international community over incidents such as the one that occurred back in 2007 in the town of Barceloneta, where private government contractors responsible for animal control were accused of killing “thousands” of animals by inhumane methods which included hurling live animals off a bridge. At the time, PETA asked for the boycott of Puerto Rico as a vacation destination and many people expressed their disgust and outrage over this and over other notorious cases detailing extreme animal abuse.
“Puerto Ricans love animals,” Cintron assured me. “Animals that become pets are often those animals that have wandered aimlessly into the front yard, and once fed and cared for, become family.”
She said that the number of stray animals in Puerto Rico is estimated to be as high as in the thousands, and this number constitutes a serious emergency for animal welfare activists. It isn’t that Puerto Ricans don’t care for animals; the problem is a lack of education and resources, two things the FEPA fights hard to try to provide each day. FEPA is an umbrella organization of sorts, whose members include individuals as well as local animal groups. The truth is that there are many local animal groups that go out daily and try to help those animals in need, in addition ordinary people become rescuers each day.
“You don’t wake up one day and say to yourself, today is the day that I’m going to rescue an animal off the street. You see a need and you act, based on your values, empathy, compassion, a connection your heart makes between yourself and the animal in need,” Cintrón says.
Her words rang true for my own experience, she had described the exact way it had happened for me in those moments when I had acted on impulse to try and save a life.
Cintrón informed me of the greatest victory to date for animal welfare advocates, “La ley para el bienestar y la protection de los animales”, or Law 154 for the protection of animals, effective 2008. The language used in the law has been praised by the Animal Legal Defense Fund, which is one of the premier groups advocating for legal protection of animals in the United States. The law is precise in its wording of the requirements for appropriate animal care as well as the penalties for failure to provide this care, which constitutes either abuse or negligence. The law is also clear about whom the responsibility of carrying out the law falls on: the municipalities of Puerto Rico. There is no state or federal program for the welfare of animals, and it is up to each municipality, the equivalent of a county in the States, to uphold and implement the law. While FEPR works hard to fund local rescue groups, its other mission is to provide outreach programs to educate communities about the legislation. It is up to each citizen to go to his or her local government office in the municipality and demand that the funds for animal control should be used for sterilization and castration, a method FEPA considers the best for lowering the number of stray animals on the island. I remarked that I was impressed with the organizations website, http://www.fepapr.org/, and that I wished such a resource had been available when I rescued Blanquita a few years back. I reflected that it had been somewhat of a struggle to initially get into contact with Marine through the university’s student animal advocate group, and that the website, which was launched in May of 2012, was certainly a step toward making it easier for those who want to help animals to do so. The website includes links that allow for monetary donations, and explains that the money is not only given to local animal rescue groups, but also used toward educational programs about animal welfare for the youth of the island.
“In our great grandfather’s time, maybe stray animals were not as numerous, or not considered such a social problem,” Cintron says. “A domestic stray animal is not like a hyena that can fend for itself and hunt, domestic means exactly that: domestic, meaning it is unable to fend for itself, that it needs the care of humans in order to survive.”
Cintron credits not only FEPA’s website, but also Facebook in raising awareness for the ongoing fight for animal welfare. Through Facebook, many local groups connect with each other and assist in each other’s efforts by making it easier to coordinate and provide needed resources for animals that are being fostered. Cintron, who owns five dogs with her husband, admits that before she started her work with FEPA she didn’t know it was possible that an animal in dire health conditions could be nursed back to health and become a valued family member.
I was curious about whether the practice of fostering was becoming more common on the island. Fostering has recently surged here in Florida and other parts of the country, as an alternative to simply making a donation or taking a stray animal to a county sponsored shelter, where the animals are usually euthanized if no home can be found for them after one week. The idea behind fostering is to save lives at all costs; A friend has been sheltering abandoned kittens with success for a year now and every one she’s nurtured back to health has been adopted. People are more willing to adopt a vibrant looking animal that is well socialized rather than one that has been directly plucked off the streets in dire conditions. My friend explained how the experience could be heart wrenching, as at first it was hard to let the kittens go after weeks of care, but that it was worth it because she saw the direct fruits of her labor each time a kitten was placed in a loving home.
Cintron says that animal fostering is not as common as it could be, due to the lack of education about it. Many people who do foster have an excess of animals, and don’t know what help they can seek through tax forms or government resources that would make it easier for them to continue fostering, or for others to even begin. Another deterrent to fostering is that people are afraid they may get too attached to the animal they care for and might not be able to let them go; in a worst-case scenario, like the one I found myself in with Blanquita, the animal may have a condition that ultimately leads to it being euthanized. Through education, Cintron hopes people will come to understand that while it may be hard to let one animal be adopted, it frees up room for another animal to come in and also be given an opportunity to be adopted.
Our conversation turned to those animals who had not found a loving home, and Cintron explained an event held last month called, “Remember Me Thursday”, or “Recuerdame este Jueves,” where hundreds of people gathered around the island in candle-lit vigils, each candle representing an animal that had never found a home. While there are programs that transport animals from Puerto Rico to the States, mimicking groups in the southern states that have an excess of animals and transport them up north, in hopes of better chances of adoption, education on the island remains the main weapon to combat the lack of homes available for stray animals in Puerto Rico. Through education, people will come to understand that although an animal may be a stray and not a purebred, they are still capable of being loyal, loving pets who will become a part of the family if given the chance.
This November, the annual symposium of FEPA was held at the University of Turabo in collaboration with other animal groups such as the International Humane Society, The Humane Society of Puerto Rico and many other local groups. A manual for rescuing animals was distributed that contains information, protocols and the best practices for the rescue of domestic animals. This was a chance for those who want more information about animal welfare to be part of an educational event created especially for the Puerto Rican animal welfare community, and is a sign that the attitudes and thoughts about the animals in Puerto Rico are going in more positive direction, which is good news for the future of both people and animals of Puerto Rico.
Katherine Tejeda is self-proclaimed bibliophile, born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, where she spent the first year of her life with her large extended family before moving away with her parents. Her Puerto Rican father spent twenty years serving in the U.S. Army, which allowed Katherine to live briefly in Germany, North Carolina, New York, and finally in Tampa, Florida, where she graduated from high school. After attending the University of Puerto Rico in Mayagüez for two years studying history, she realized her true calling was to become a writer. She now attends the University of South Florida, where she’s majoring in mass communications, specifically magazine writing. Katherine’s hope is that through her love of writing she can continue to spread awareness about issues that are important to her, that include but are not limited to animal welfare, healthy living, and traveling. She still visits Puerto Rico and Dominican Republic, to spend time with family and her fiancé.