As the sun rises above San Juan’s Peninsula de Cantera neighborhood, stray pigs roam the streets looking for scraps of food.
In one yard, nearly a dozen have gathered, oinking and waving their brown tails as they appear to debate what to do next. A man standing nearby says only one pig belongs to him; the rest, he believes, were abandoned after the storm.
Miles away, in towns like Yabucoa and Levittown, once-domesticated dogs and cats forage for food. Their bones poke out from their fur.
In Vega Baja, even the horses, with branding that proves they once had an owner, have been left behind to roam dirt streets and graze grassy areas by the beach.
It’s a similar situation across the island, said Claribel Pizarro, executive assistant at the Humane Society of Puerto Rico (HSPR), which has a no-kill policy. She estimated that after Hurricane Maria, there are now more than 500,000 stray dogs and more than a million stray cats.
Many dog and cat owners are bringing their pets to HSPR’s shelter for a variety of reasons.
“A lot of economic issues,” Pizarro said.
There are also owners, she added, who simply don’t want the responsibility of taking care of their pets anymore.
On average, Pizarro said, roughly 10 to 20 people attempt to give up their pets each day. But most are turned away because HSPR’s shelter is at 150 percent capacity with very few — two at most — adoptions occurring daily.
Many shelters in Puerto Rico don’t have no-kill policies. So instead of taking animals to a perceived certain death, owners abandon them on the street, tie them to trees or even leave them with money in their collars in hopes someone else will care for them.
The stray animals have always been a problem in Puerto Rico, but with Maria’s devastation, it has rapidly morphed into a crisis.
"After the storm, the situation worsened,” said Ana Victoria Pardo, who regularly feeds stray dogs with donations. Before Hurricane Maria, she made five stops a day to feed about 20 dogs. Now, she expects at least 20, or more, at each of her stops.
Puerto Rico’s government has acknowledged the growing problem as well. In October, Gov. Ricardo Rosselló signed an executive order allowing the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) to take control of animal welfare on the island. In February, the governor extended that order by 18 months.
HSUS touts its “Spayathon for Puerto Rico” initiative, which is training veterinarians on the island as they work to spay, neuter and vaccinate more than 20,000 animals for free in low-income communities on the island.
Still, Pardo said this initiative is flawed and has room for improvement.
“The problem is that after they are operated (on), they need a week to recover. Where are they going to be?” Pardo said. “People keep throwing sick animals to the streets.”
Back at the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, Pizarro is more hopeful that things will improve as people across the island become more enlightened.
“We have to educate more... animals are not things that you can throw away or give to a person,” said Pizarro. “We expect to stabilize to everything going normal again.”
A team of 11 University of Florida student journalists from WUFT News and Noticias WUFT traveled to the island for a week to document life after Maria. What captured their attention were the stories of resilience and determination to keep moving forward. To see the entire series, visit www.lifeaftermaria.org.