Headed from San Juan, Puerto Rico, a chartered plane flew over the Atlantic on Oct. 10. There was no in-flight entertainment or beverage service. There were no flight attendants. And the passengers were uneasy, yapping and yelping at sudden bouts of turbulence before landing in Morristown.
The din could be excused, as it was the passengers’ first time flying. Not to mention, they were loaded tightly into crates, stacked in the back of the plane. For these fearless flyers were stray animals, 117 dogs and 13 cats in total, rescued from the streets of the Caribbean island which has been in constant crisis from hurricanes and earthquakes.
The airlift was chartered by The Sato Project, a nonprofit which rescues abused and abandoned dogs from Puerto Rico, where, according to the organization, 500,000 dogs roam the streets with no access to food or veterinary care. As a result of this “stray dog epidemic,” municipal shelters are constantly euthanizing satos, Puerto Rican slang for street dogs.
“A lot of these dogs have been abandoned as well as people have left the island…,” Communications Manager Tara Steinberg told NJ Advance Media. “Puerto Rico is in a constant state of crisis, so a lot of people are being forced to make very uncomfortable decisions that are often hard for other people to fully understand, but it is a very sad byproduct that dogs are being abandoned.”
Since its founding in 2011, the group has rescued more than 5,000 strays from the island, matching them with families in the Northeast. The organization’s rescue operations are based in Puerto Rico and its administrative headquarters in Brooklyn, but it often flies into Morristown, as a central location for East Coast adopters.
Before boarding, each dog is checked by a veterinarian for any infectious diseases like heartworm or parvo, with the help of partner shelters in Puerto Rico. Because of the veterinary care, the average cost to rescue each dog ranges from $1,500 to $2,000, funded entirely by charitable donations.
“Our team prioritizes dogs that clearly need help,” Steinberg said. “We rescue a lot of really intense cases where dogs are emaciated, they have very intense mange, so they don’t have any fur at all, or have signs of other serious health issues, so it’s very, very clear that it’s not just a family dog that ran away. It’s a dog that’s been abused and neglected.”
The October rescue took off from San Juan in the early hours of the morning, with the animals loaded up in the middle of the night, so they could sleep on the flight and travel at the coolest time of day. The organization relies on volunteers every step of the way to help transport the animals and is always looking for more New Jersey volunteers.
After a couple drop-offs and a quick layover in Fort Lauderdale, the plane made its way to Morristown, where adopters came out, ready to meet their new furry friends. A total of 33 dogs went straight to families, and the rest went to partner shelters in New York, Pennsylvania and Florida.
One of those eager adopters was Michelle Eis, a Bergenfield resident meeting Luna, a 5-month-old Australian Shephard/Jack Russell mix.
Five years prior, Eis had rescued Harley, a Boxer Lab, from a different agency and was ready to expand her family, like so many other households who have adopted dogs during the pandemic. So great was the demand, that The Sato Project had families on a waitlist, unable to provide puppies immediately to all who promised a good home.
The Sato Project, which will charter its next rescue in December, was grounded in the early months of the pandemic and began flying rescue flights again in July. With each flight, dogs can be moved out of overcrowded kennels, creating room for more to be rescued off the streets.
Not previously familiar with the non-profit, Eis had found Luna on a site called Petfinder. When she stumbled upon the puppy’s speckled black nose, it was love at first sight.
“I saw that nose, oh my god, and I was like, I have to have that nose,” Eis told NJ Advance Media.
After a month-long process that included filling out an application, partaking in a phone interview and sending videos of her home to The Sato Project, she was approved. Eis greeted Luna at the airport, where she let the pup stretch her legs and get acclimated, before taking her home.
Though volunteers warn adopters that the dogs might need weeks to decompress, where owners should be patient and provide them with space and quiet, Luna became quickly accustomed to the rhythms of her new home. The playful puppy has a calm dispossession, unlike many of the rescues which can be rattled or take time to trust their owners.
“It’s unconditional love when you treat them the right way… it’s like magic,” Eis said.
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Josh Axelrod may be reached at JAxelrod@njadvancemedia.com.