Ever since Hurricane Harvey hit Texas in August, the volunteers of Smithtown-based Guardians of Rescue have not stopped working. The animal rescue organization has been taking in dogs and cats affected by the recent natural disasters and transporting them to shelters in Florida and on Long Island.
Now, the volunteers are in Puerto Rico following Hurricane Maria. According to the organization’s founder, Robert Misseri, the circumstances there are different.
“We were in Texas, and we were in Florida [after Hurricane Irma made landfall in September],” Misseri said. “Flights going in and out were not that complicated. Supplies going in and out were not that complicated. Resources were not that complicated. As far as Puerto Rico goes, everything is complicated.”
Misseri explained that the majority of commercial airlines are currently not allowing animals on flights out of Puerto Rico. A private aircraft was donated to Guardians of Rescue by The Onyx and Breezy Foundation in New Jersey. In addition, “Real Housewives of New York City” star Bethenny Frankel loaded up several airplanes out of New York and included their supplies on board.
The volunteers then got to work with the Humane Society of Puerto Rico. So far, Guardians of Rescue has assisted in bringing over 200 animals to the United States, with even more on the way. About 20 dogs will be available for adoption at Save-A-Pet Animal Shelter in Port Jefferson Station.
The rest of the animals will go to shelters in Florida, and Misseri said he has been getting requests from other Long Island shelters that are "willing to step up" as well. In addition, people in Puerto Rico with family in the United States have been able to send their pets through Guardians of Rescue to their relatives.
“We have been getting desperate pleas from people who have parents or a parent [in Puerto Rico],” Misseri said. “Generally they’re much older, they have medical and health issues, and they refuse to leave the island. Even though their house is completely destroyed, they have no air conditioning, no electricity, no way to travel because their car is completely submerged, they won’t leave their pets behind.”
Once the animals land in Florida — the closest destination available for the small aircraft they’re flying — they are greeted by veterinarians and groomers. According to Dori Scofield, the president of Save-A-Pet, the vet check is important due to the hot climate and tick population in Puerto Rico.
“We have to make sure the animals are stable enough to be transported,” she said.
Another Long Island animal rescue group hoping to make a difference in Puerto Rico, Patchogue-based New York Bully Crew, has been taking pit bulls into their halfway house near Rincón following Hurricane Maria. The Patchogue nonprofit started rescuing dogs from Puerto Rico in 2016 when they were alerted to a homeless pit bull named Henry, who had been suffering from severe injuries. While there, the volunteers learned about Puerto Rico's stray dog crisis.
“We get daily updates, photos and videos,” said Carla Mohan, Bully Crew’s public relations coordinator. “We have amazing clinics and vets down there that have done some miraculous treatments on dogs — dogs that would have normally been absolutely put down.”
Mohan said there are currently 10 dogs in the halfway house being cared for by Bully Crew staff members, and 55 dogs arrived in Patchogue from Puerto Rico on Saturday. Many of them already have prospective owners.
“[The dogs] have forever homes that are waiting for them,” Mohan said.
Misseri says that he isn’t sure when the Guardians of Rescue volunteers will return from Puerto Rico. There’s still a lot of work to be done.
“[The volunteers] oftentimes get compassion fatigue, because they see so much and they can only do so much,” he said. “Between witnessing animals in need and living literally out of a car sometimes, and not having any kind of luxury comfort for five minutes, it wears them down. Not only one hurricane, but now this is our third one and we have not stopped.”
Because of these nonstop relief efforts, Misseri said the organization is struggling financially. They are accepting tax deductible donations at guardiansofrescue.org/donate.
Scofield said that Save-A-Pet received 14 dogs last Saturday and they are expecting more next week. "I'll take as many as I can," she said.
She offered some advice to those hoping to adopt a dog affected by the stress of a natural disaster.
“They just need to be very patient and take it very slow, like with any new dog,” Scofield said. “Because you don’t know the background of the dog, you don’t what they’ve been through — the trauma they’ve been through, and the trauma of being transported.
"It’s a lot for a creature who doesn’t understand what’s going on.”