In Puerto Rico, finding forever homes for hundreds of pets

Amid a crescendo of barks and meows comes the hum of focused conversation. “What about C-75?” asked Jenny Moreira, a rising fourth year student in the UF College of Veterinary Medicine. Another fourth year, Torri Cicchirillo, searched quickly through a thick binder of handwritten records. “Not matched,” she replied. Moreria, Cicchirillo, and fellow fourth year student Laura Espinola, along with UF Shelter Medicine intern Dr. Meaghan Mielo, were working feverishly in the late morning heat to match shelter animal records to the abundance of animals housed at Villa Michelle, the largest animal shelter on Puerto Rico’s west coast. The students, immersed in an intensive clerkship in shelter medicine, were on site in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, to help Villa Michelle prepare for a significant event in the shelter’s history – a two-day “adopt-a-thon” designed to place the hundreds of dogs and cats housed at Villa Michelle into loving, forever homes.

Dogs at the Villa Michelle animal shelter in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, await adoption at the shelter's adopt-a-thon.

The lofty aspirations of the event come at a time when good shelter management could not be more important for Puerto Rico. The impact of Hurricanes Irma and Maria caused massive devastation on the island. Residents who lost entire homes and livelihoods because of the storms continue to deal with much more than simple displacement. Hundreds, if not thousands of animals were made homeless and helpless. Rebuilding has been slow and painful. Shelters like Villa Michelle, correspondingly, are overflowing.

Dr. Julie Levy, the Fran Marino Endowed Professor in Shelter Medicine Education at the UF College of Veterinary Medicine and co-founder of the Million Cat Challenge, has been working with the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and corporate charities PetCo and Petsmart Charities, as well as private philanthropists and foundations like Maddie’s Fund, for many months to facilitate a profound shift in Villa Michelle’s practices. While Villa Michelle has always supported adoption, spay and neuter, and compassion for homeless animals, a unique inertia has stifled their efforts. With so many animals to care for, how can there be time to encourage best practices in shelter medicine and shelter management?

A kitten at the Villa Michelle animal shelter in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, awaits adoption at the shelter's adopt-a-thon.
A kitten at the Villa Michelle animal shelter in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico, awaits adoption at the shelter’s adopt-a-thon.

Levy, and a team of shelter medicine practitioners from UF CVM that include Dr. Cynda Crawford, the Maddies® Clinical Assistant Professor of Shelter Medicine; Dr. Sarah Kirk, Adjunct Lecturer for the Maddies Shelter Medicine Program; Dr. Jill Kirk; Cameron Moore, program manager for Million Cat Challenge; the aforementioned students; and Dr. Mielo, are joined at Villa Michelle by Inga Fricke, director of sheltering initiatives and outreach for HSUS. The determination of this small army to vaccinate, document, and implement appropriate record-keeping in time for the adoption event, is powerful evidence of their commitment to success. Cicchirillo summed up the experience succinctly. “This is eye-opening,” she says. “Shelters in the U.S….well, they are spoiled by comparison. They have resources and technology. Here, there is none of that. This is our third day working on records for the animals. We want to teach Villa Michelle how to do it and continue it.”

Cameron Moore, program manager for Million Cat Challenge, poses with a puppy at Villa Michelle in Mayguez, Puerto Rico, the largest animal shelter on Puerto Rico's west coast.
Cameron Moore, program manager for Million Cat Challenge, poses with a puppy at Villa Michelle in Mayguez, Puerto Rico, the largest animal shelter on Puerto Rico’s west coast.

Mielo echoed Cicchirillo’s concerns. “There are still approximately 100 records not matched with animals,” she says. “We just don’t know if these animals are here, if they have already been adopted, or perhaps euthanized.” Yet, in the face of this daunting task come regular rays of hope. Island-wide promotion of the Villa Michelle adoption event has already begun generating visitors through the shelter’s doors. A tiny white puppy is lovingly handled by a young couple who happily pose for a picture with their new family member. A brown, fluffy youngster is cuddled and carried out the door after the requisite photo opp. And, perhaps most compelling, is the return of a shelter visitor from earlier in the week, who had chosen a young female mixed breed and had waited for it to be spayed. Overwhelmed with emotion, she cried tears of joy as she shared that she wanted to wait for a few days before naming her adoptee. “I like to wait for their personalities to emerge,” she said. “I am so happy. I just didn’t think this was possible.”

Fricke of HSUS, Levy, and the rest of the UF CVM Shelter Medicine team went well beyond record-keeping to bring Villa Michelle to readiness for the adoption event. Levy notes that they have been meeting long-distance with the shelter staff for months to encourage and cultivate the changes needed to reduce euthanasia and foster consistent, successful adoptions. “It is so important – critical – that they can sustain the practices that reduce shelter intake, mitigate disease outbreaks, and motivate adoption,” she says.

Cultural shift is never easy, but if the early traffic at Villa Michelle is any indication, the shelter may be entering a new era. “We are so hopeful for dozens, if not hundreds, of adoptions over the next two days,” says Fricke. Levy is equally hopeful for long-term outcomes. “If this is the beginning of an improvement in the health of the shelter animals at Villa Michelle, along with successful placements in forever homes, then we are on our way.”