By Lee Schoenbart
Unlike Dog Beach in Del Mar, you can't surf at Dead Dog Beach in Puerto Rico. That's because the beach is the dump-off point where local dog owners discard their pets.
The commonwealth is teaming with 100,000 dogs roaming the streets uncared for, many possibly feral.
At the best shelter on the island, filled to capacity with 600 animals, management is forced to turn away animals until they find relief and more space to house them at the shelter.
On a mission to provide invaluable educational resources to the island's animal caretakers, and reeducate the commonwealth's people in general about the humane treatment of its canine population, a Helen Woodward Animal Center contingency witnessed firsthand the dire straits of man's supposedly best friend.
In December 2008, HWAC president Mike Arms was invited to speak in San Juan, Puerto Rico, at a Humane Society International-sponsored workshop and Adoptions and Shelter Care conference to talk about change.
"At that time, I went to the humane society in Puerto Rico and took a tour and saw some of the most beautiful animals you'd ever want to see," Arms said.
Arms recalled driving along the streets of Puerto Rico with dogs running loose everywhere.
"We stopped to catch one and they explained to me that the people of the community feel that the animals will have a better chance in the street than they would in one of the animal shelters," he lamented.
"So I promised them I would come back to Puerto Rico and that's why we were there this time," he said. "I brought my development director Renee Resko, my operations director Rita Truderung and my education manager Christy Dunn because we need to change a culture and that's much harder than teaching them how to increase adoptions, decrease euthanasia and run it as a business.
"We need to teach them starting with the children because we're not going to change tomorrow unless we work with the children of today," Arms said.
Arms, Resko, Truderung and Dunn went to teach the local educators and caretakers how to fundraise, set up day camps — such as the popular Critter Camp in Rancho Santa Fe — and provide the templates for curriculums to be used in schools to begin attempting to change the culture about the treatment of their animals.
"I have to admit we were extremely successful," Arms said, "because they invited my education manager to come back. They're going to bring all the educators together on the island and have Christy do a weeklong training session on how to start working with children and teach them to be more humane."
One-hundred thousand dogs roaming the island sounds as though Puerto Rico is facing a huge health and safety epidemic, but Arms recalled a time when New York City was in crisis due its unchecked animal population.
"All this reminded me of New York going back to the 1960s when there were packs of dogs running loose in the streets, running loose in Central Park and attacking kids," he said. "The ASPCA had to do roundups to get the animals off the streets.