A Plan for our Puerto Rico Vacation
Recently, my husband and I decided to take a vacation in Puerto Rico. We had been to Puerto Rico before hurricane Maria and very much wanted to go back. About the time we thought we’d go, the hurricane hit and our plans had to change. However, the hurricane made getting back to Puerto Rico an even bigger goal of ours. We know from our experience running small businesses through 9/11 and the economic hard times of 2008 that supporting businesses by spending money with them is one of the best ways you can help. So as soon as we could swing it, we booked our trip.
Before we left for Puerto Rico, we decided to reach out via email to an organization called Save a Sato; an animal rescue in San Juan. Over 4 years ago, our local animal shelter received a small dog from this organization which saves stray dogs (called Sato(s)) in Puerto Rico. They also save cats. Some of the rescued dogs get flown to the US and this little dog, Shema, found herself in Northern Michigan. We had gone to our local shelter to see a newly received Siberian Husky after the death of ours and came away with not only the husky but the petite Sato, Shema, as well. We love our Shema so much that we initially made a donation to the organization that saved her life and, now that we were heading to Puerto Rico, we want to see if we could help them again by bringing some supplies. My email was answered by a volunteer named Lucy who was more than happy to coordinate the supply drop with me. (For more about Shema visit her Instagram page
The problem with going to visit an animal shelter, at least for me, is that I want to take them ALL home. But, my husband, Jerry, and I agreed that no matter how much the urge to save one of the animals housed at Save a Sato overtook us, we couldn’t do it at this time. Our two rescue dogs are wonderful, but our Husky has separation anxiety which we have worked hard to get manageable. We did not want to add another dog into the mix that might upset her. After three days in Puerto Rico, we made a trip to Sam’s Club to buy dog and cat food and cleaning supplies to add to our duffle bag of meds and other supplies generously donated by our local vet Dr. Jerry Harrison of Leelanau Veterinary Care. Then we headed over to Save a Sato to meet Lucy and drop off the supplies.
Visiting the Save a Sato facility was so hard. They specialize in taking some of the hardest luck cases. There was pen upon pen of young dogs, old dogs, some hurt dogs and sick some dogs and a couple of pens that housed mom dogs with large litters to boot. All of them wanting a pet or caress from us. I could have taken them all home. When we left I was crying … it was so hard to drive away.
After leaving Save a Sato, we headed to our rented condo in Loiza, a 30-minute drive. We had spent 3 days in San Juan, and now we were changing location to have some chill time at the beach. The condo complex was a fully gated and fenced situation which most are in Puerto Rico. The setting was beautiful right on the beach with El Yunque National Forest’s mountain range in view from our veranda. It was a little slice of paradise.
Trouble in Paradise
On our second day there, after taking a Sunday drive around Fajardo and Luquillo, we decided to go to the pool at our condo to take a swim and catch some sun. I was laying out on a lounge chair when a small starving dog appeared out of nowhere. She was a young dog, and despite how skinny she was, she was in relatively good shape; just a few scabs. I called out to her, and she came to me crawling up on my chair and giving me a big cuddle. She was skin and bones. After a few minutes of cuddling, she took off again, no doubt in search of food.
Back at our condo as evening was coming on, I told Jerry I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing that the starving dog was out there somewhere. So we put some food together and went out to look for her. We search for a time and couldn’t find her, so we started to head back toward our place when we heard a commotion. That’s when we came upon the security guard for the property pulling the little dog across the lawn with a heavy, large and wet rope tied in a slip knot around her neck. She was nearly spread eagle in the grass. I screamed “NO! STOP”! I ran to the little thing scooping her up off the ground. Jerry immediately started to loosen the rope around her neck, and I told the security guard we would deal with her. His job is to keep strays off the property, I get that, but he didn’t need to be so cruel to her.
We took her to the beach where we assumed she had come from. Sadly, the beach is the place where Puerto Rican’s who, for whatever reason, no longer want their dogs and cats, tend to drop them. Of course, there was another stray out there too. A very pretty boy dog who was friendly and clearly knew how to work a crowd for food. He was confident but also pretty skinny. We gave them both food. The little girl was pretty scared of him even though he was not aggressive towards her. He was just very interested in her. When she was occupied eating, we left. We felt sick and heartbroken to leave her out there but being on vacation, what could we do.
A while later, back at the condo, I heard several dogs barking somewhat wildly. I thought that the little dog had perhaps gotten involved in a scrape with other dogs. Again, I ran out to find the little dog. As it turns out, she wasn’t one of the barking dogs. That commotion was coming from the neighborhood adjacent to our condo complex. But once I arrived at the pool, there she was again. She had someway that she was getting through the fencing of the property and it was just a matter of time before the security guys would get her again. So, Jerry and I tried to place her back on the beach. Now it was dark out. We set her in the sand, and she collapsed in a shivering heap. I couldn’t take it. I looked at Jerry with an unspoken question, and he nodded an implied, “yes.” I picked her up, and we took her up to our “no dogs allowed” rental condo.
The Big Decision
What do we do now? The next morning we discussed our options. The dog was extremely docile and loving but so shy and timid that life on the beach or streets would do her in, in no time flat. Plus she wasn’t fixed and already close to starving to death. Our first thought was to
We were met at the gate by Adrienne “Adry.” She said, without hesitation, that she couldn’t take the dog. She had had an outbreak of parvo and had her hands full. We had a discussion with her about our options for the dog, and it pretty much came down to two …. keep her or put her back on the beach. We would come to find out that there just isn’t any room at the shelters in Puerto Rico.
So that started a four-day odyssey of driving around greater San Juan to do everything that we needed to do to get her home. The first thing we did was give her a name. In my mind, I knew exactly what she should be called … Lucy … after the amazing volunteer at Save a Sato. She was going to need strength and fortitude to get through the next week of her life, something I felt Lucy must have to work with the animals at Save A Sato.
We took Lucy to a vet in Isla Verde named Dr. Pagan. Audry had told us about a different vet, but we got confused and ended up at Dr. Pagan’s. As it turned out, we got lucky with that mistake. Dr. Pagan and her staff were helpful beyond seeing to the medical needs of Lucy. They understood that we were a long way from home with little resources and island connections. They helped us with things like printing off the forms that Delta Airlines required us to fill out and put up with our constant calls asking for other information.
Once Lucy was clear of any life-threatening diseases, like heartworms, we found ourselves at Pet Smart buying her a harness, leash, and food; the very items we had donated to Save a Sato two days earlier. The irony of which was not lost on us.
It became clear very quickly that getting Lucy home wasn’t going to be easy. A call to Delta Airlines confirmed that she was too tall to go under the seat in front of us on the plane, despite her mere 16 pounds. And she was too nervous, skinny and lacking in a nice thick coat to be shipped as “cargo” to our frigid home state, Michigan. Also, we were due to fly San Juan to Atlanta, Atlanta to Detroit, Detroit to Traverse City a total of 12 hours of travel time. It would be too long, too hot, then too cold, and just too much for this poor creature to go as cargo. The only option left was to get her registered as my “emotional support dog.” An idea presented to us by Dr. Pagan.
Delta Airlines requirements for registering an emotional support dog are daunting even in the best of circumstances. Delta wanted a full veterinary workup on Lucy and a signed document from a licensed doctor or psychiatrist stating that I need the dog for this purpose. We also had to sign a document stating we would take legal and financial responsibility for the behavior of the dog during the trip. At first Dr. Pagan offered to help us find a doctor but then didn’t come through. Audry didn’t seem to know where to send us either. Not knowing who else to turn to, I searched online and called around but was unsuccessful finding a doctor who spoke English let alone one that could help. We had hit a big roadblock.
On the third day with Lucy, we got up determined to find a doctor to help us. I took Lucy for a walk at the condos in the morning to let her do her “business,” and a Canadian woman, Pauline, who owns a condo in the complex came out to talk to me. Various people who live at the condos had seen Lucy on the property the Sunday before and had learned about our decision to try to help her. She wanted to tell me how happy she was about it. I told her we were trying to save Lucy but had this big hurdle with finding a doctor. She said her next door neighbor was a Puerto Rican lawyer and that she knew a lot of professional people. She said she might know someone and that she could email her to ask for help. I gave her my cell number and asked her to call me as soon as she could. We were running out of time to get all the paperwork done for Delta (the paperwork has to be in 48 hours before the flight). Within 45 mins this kind woman called me with the name of a doctor, a psychiatrist no less, who had agreed to help.
As it turned out, something wasn’t quite right with that situation. When I called over to the office, no one seemed to know about us. They put me on the line with a woman named Yuderka because she spoke the best English of anyone in the office. She didn’t know anything about us either, so I had to tell her the whole story. Luckily, she had been involved in helping to rescue cats after the hurricane and was sympathetic to our cause. She said to come on over to the office, and she would see if she could get the doctor to agree to help us. We were, after all, asking a lot of the doctor to sign and stamp an official document. We knew this and could only hope that the doctor would see the bigger picture.
I spent the whole day at that office, and the entire time various persons who work there told me that the doctor knew nothing about the situation and wasn’t keen on signing the papers. My only ally in the office, Yuderka, had left at lunchtime to go to her other job, so I just crossed my figures, paid my $80 fee, and hoped for the best. The whole time I was in the office, Jerry was outside parked under a tree sitting patiently with Lucy.
5 hours later the doctor finally saw me. In Puerto Rico, you take a number to see a doctor like you’re at the DMV or the deli here in the states. Makes sense for the doctor but not so much for the patient. The doctor turned out to be one tough customer. She asked me all sorts of mental health questions despite the fact that she was briefed on the situation and knew that I didn’t really need an emotional support dog. I thought to myself, “fine, lady, if you need to play this game, I can play it.” I laid out my reasons for needing an emotional support dog, and she continued to grill me about my mental health.
When she’d finished with me, she thoroughly and slowly examined the Delta Airlines form which needed to sign. I honestly think she dragged it out as long as she possibly could just to see me squirm. I was tired and nearly at the end of my rope after the long day in her office and the days before worrying about the fate of Lucy. Finally, she signed the papers. On parting, she told me to come to see her next time I was in Puerto Rico, and she would give me some drugs. I’d take a natural remedy like an emotional support dog any day over prescription drugs and another visit with that doctor.
Delta Airlines requires persons who need to register their emotional support dog to upload all documents to their website 48 hours prior to flying and wait for approval. Since we were staying at a condo and not a hotel that might have a business center, we didn’t have access to a printer to scan the documents. We also didn’t have our computers only our phones. So I called Delta and explained that we didn’t have the electronic equipment to follow the directions. They said, no problem, just go to the airport and hand deliver the papers to an agent. And so we did with Lucy in tow. It would be a good test to see how she reacted to the airport, and she passed with flying colors.
Just as a side note … we had to take Lucy everywhere we went because we didn’t know what she would do in the condo left alone. This meant when we need to grocery shop or get supplies for Lucy, one of us had to sit with her in the car. She was having a hard time with car sickness throwing up each time we started out in the car. This added to the overall stress of the situation. We were trying to fatten her up, and she kept blowing it out. We changed her food from dog food to boiled chicken and rice which seemed to help. She was extremely nervous in the car which may have contributed to the sickness as well, but we had no choice but to take her along.
At the airport, we ran into an agent who insisted that we follow procedure and upload the documentation to Delta. When we told him repeatedly that it wasn’t possible, he said we’d have to call Delta. We exclaimed, “we DID, and they told us to come to the airport.” Once again we thought we had hit a solid brick wall. All of a sudden another agent came over to the counter. I think he saw our dismay from a distance. He kind of nudged the other guy aside and asked us the problem. We explained again that we had no way of uploading the documents to register the dog. He said, “give me the papers, I’ll be right back.” He took them in the back, and we waited about 15 minutes wondering what he was doing. When he came back, he handed them over and said, “you are all set. When you come on Monday to check in just come right to this desk, and everything will be in the computer for flying the dog.”
And so Lucy traveled the whole way home with us sitting on our laps. Dr. Pagan gave her an anti-nausea medicine so she wouldn’t barf. Lucy nearly came unglued from nerves when we first got on the plane, and randomly at other times, her nerves got the best of her. Through it all, she didn’t make a sound and was a very good girl. Lucy refused to use the doggy relief area in Atlanta but finally used the facility for dogs at the Detroit airport after holding it for many hours. Once we landed in frigid Traverse City (it was 4 degrees out) she had a 40 min car ride home and was met at the door at 1:00 am by our big Siberian Husky, Marley, and our little Sato, Shema. After some initial posturing, sniffing, a little growling … they all accepted the situation. Shema is particularly good with Lucy. Perhaps given they are both dogs from the streets of Puerto Rico gives them a special bond.
I want to note that, though I am not a terribly religious woman, I feel that there was a bit of divine intervention in this matter and that some angels were sent our way to help get Lucy home. The whole team at Dr. Pagan’s office including Carla who was quite sick and still managed to call us with needed information. Adrienne at Amigos de
All during our 13-day stay in Puerto Rico, we met so many genuinely warm and kind folks. Before finding Lucy, in Old San Juan, the people at our hotel, in restaurants and around town all were friendly and welcoming. They were patient with my sketchy Spanish, eager to show off their skills in English and have a little chat. After Lucy, anyone we met who got wind of our story actually thanked us for helping out the dog and some apologized that the problem with stray animals on the island had become a personal one for us. I would joke that I was looking for a coconut shell bra as a souvenir but got Lucy instead.