Isle of Dogs by Jeremy Gumener (A’19)

by tuftsigl
Jul 10

There are approximately 300,000 stray dogs and over one million cats roaming the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico. Most homeless or abandoned animals brought to shelters on the island are euthanized because of overpopulation.

After Hurricane Maria, many animal shelters closed. Before traveling to Puerto Rico, I read stories that stray dogs were tossed over fences, tied to gates and even left with $20 bills under their collars. Some dog-owners who left the island permanently locked their dogs inside their homes and never came back. Some dogs lived in cages on shelters’ roofs because there was no room inside. With many clinics also closed, animal rights activists predicted that there would be a jump in the number of puppies due to the interruption in spay and neuter operations.

Supermarkets that used to donate leftover food had permanently closed after the Hurricane. Keeping abandoned animals alive became increasingly expensive.

To help reduce the number of stray animals and prevent euthanasia, the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and 22 other organizations, including the Sato Project, launched a historic, high-volume “Spayathon”. The goal is to spay and neuter at least 20,000 cats and dogs by May 2019.

The expected long-term benefits of the spay and neuter operation in Puerto Rico are undeniable. Not only will it help prevent the continuous reproduction of stray animals, it will also educate pet owners. Moreover, the HSUS is planning on donating all its equipment locally to help further the animal welfare efforts in Puerto Rico after the end of the Spayathon. Throughout the 18-month operation, experienced doctors train young veterinarians on the field, giving them extensive practice in spaying and neutering.

My arrival in Puerto Rico coincided with the first ‘round’ of the Spayathon, which took place in different parts of Puerto Rico from June 3rd to the 9th. The next round is expected to happen in November, the third in March, and the fourth and final one in May 2019.

When I first decided to focus on the initiative for my story for the Program on Narrative and Documentary Practice workshop, I planned on going into the field directly to help rescue abandoned dogs that needed imminent medical attention. I wanted to photograph and document the process of rehabilitation. However, there was no rescue mission during my week in Puerto Rico.

In fact, my eyes were opened to something completely different.  My experience was much more humane and heartwarming, hopeful and powerful than I could have ever expected.

In Puerto Rico, I witnessed a love of animals deeply engrained in Puerto Rican culture. Pet owners in the clinics I visited were among the most patient people I had ever met.

During my first three days in Puerto Rico, I was granted permission to photograph at a Spayathon clinic in Ceiba, an underserved town an hour east of San Juan. On my second day, I arrived at the clinic at 5:30am, where hundreds of pet owners were waiting in line for their pets to be seen. Each day, the operation at Ceiba served about 115 animals. The clinic had not yet opened, and most of the volunteers were still not on site. By 6:30, the line outside the clinic had extended to several hundred people.

I asked a woman about her dog, which was only a couple of months old but had scabs all over. She told me that it was the ninth dog she adopted since the hurricane. She had heard of a shelter near Puerto Rico’s national rainforest, El Yunque, where one out of every three abandoned dogs were euthanized. She also told me that it was part of the culture in Puerto Rico to own several dogs and that many people she knew adopted them for security purposes. She had been waiting in line for three hours when I met her, and she was one of the last ones to leave the clinic that day, just as the sun was setting.

After my experience at Ceiba, I decided to photograph from a different angle. I sought to focus more on the pet owners than on the pets themselves. The community wanted to learn about their animals and how to take care of them – most of them had never been to the vet before. The volunteers handed out pamphlets for children and adults, instructing them on different kinds of diseases, on symptoms, and on what to do in cases of emergency. They also explained why spaying and neutering was beneficial in the long-term.

My fourth day I went to visit the clinic in Manatì, near Playa Mar Chiquita. They set up the clinic in a giant warehouse with basketball courts. The size of the operation there was about the same as that in Ceiba.

The next day I visited the largest Spayathon operation in Puerto Rico, in Ponce, south of San Juan. There, too, the clinic was set up in an even bigger warehouse turned gymnasium, where over 500 animals received care daily.

That day, I was sitting outside near the clinic in Ponce, going through my photographs. I realized that none of the photographs I had taken in Ponce and Manati were as powerful as the ones I had taken in Ceiba, where I had invested much more time and had gotten to know the local pet-owners. For that reason, I decided to return to Ceiba for my last day in Puerto Rico, where I felt my portraits were most sincere. I encountered familiar faces who were happy to see me again. They gave me a personal tour of the town and showed me the local cafeterias, high-schools, and Church, and it occurred to me that I wasn’t able to achieve the work I wanted in Ponce or Manati because I didn’t have the time to get to know the people there, to fully immerse myself in those communities. That, perhaps, is the most valuable lesson I learned during my time in Puerto Rico, one that will without doubt help me with any endeavor I wish to undertake in the near future.