Dog Days in Vieques

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Stay on Vieques for long and you’ll notice the stray dogs.

I keep spare food in the back seat for when I come across a dog that looks hungry. This one wolfed down two cans.
I keep spare food in the back seat for when I come across a dog that looks hungry.
This one wolfed down two cans.

I don’t know if there are more of them here than in other places I’ve lived in the States, but considering that the current unemployment rate here is over 50%, with 70% of people living at or below the poverty line, it isn’t the most receptive environment for the “spay or neuter your pet” message. There is a Humane Society office located on the island that does the best they can with the resources they have, but they only have room for about 70 dogs. The animals are given food, shelter and medical care but spend most of their week in cages or dog runs. However, every Friday between 10AM and 2PM, if they are lucky, they get a little taste of freedom. Led by Margo, the patron saint of the island’s lost dogs, volunteers can take them out for a glorious 20 minute-or-so romp on grassy hills dotted with palm trees, an oceanside beach, and occasionally, a visit by Vieques’ free-range horses.

On the way to the beach
On the way to the beach

Margo has been doing this every week for the past nine years. In fact, she set the program up. The Humane Society was initially reluctant but Margo was persistent and eventually won them over. Of course, the real winners are the dogs who now receive warm, positive human contact on a regular basis, possibly for the first time in their lives.

Margo and Lucy
Margo and Lucy


Semifluff smells a treat in that hand
Semifluff smells a treat in that hand

It dramatically improves their social skills, helps them rebuild trusting relationships with humans, and improves their chances for adoption. Plus, it gives them a chance to run and play and just be dogs for a little while. I heard about the program when I got here, but initially resisted volunteering. I’m kind of a softie when it comes to dogs (well, most animals, to tell you the truth) and I figured that it would be pretty draining from an emotional perspective. But eventually, I decided to man-up and give it a try. If I didn’t like it, I just wouldn’t go back, right? Well, I’ve been going back every Friday since. There is nothing depressing about it at all. In fact, it’s a lot of fun. The dogs are well cared for, healthy, and are absolutely thrilled to get some love and attention.

Happy coming in for her close-up
Happy coming in for her close-up

So what is volunteering like? Well, a group of dogs (anywhere from 4 to 8, depending on the size of the dogs and the number of volunteers) is let out of their pens and led to a lovely green field right next to the ocean. We hang out in the cooling shade of palm trees and give the dogs as much attention, doggie treats and positive encouragement as they can stand.

Jacqueline with Whitey and Fox. I think. It's hard to keep all of the names straight. Fortunately, the dogs don't seem to mind.
Jacqueline with Whitey and Fox. I think. It’s hard to keep all of the names straight. Fortunately, the dogs don’t seem to mind.


Cuddle time
Cuddle time

Then it’s off to the beach, often passing horses that may or may not stick around, depending on how the dogs behave (which is actually pretty good for the most part. They tend to respect those hooves. As do I.)

Usually, they keep their distance, but this mare decided come in for a closer look.
Usually, they keep their distance, but this mare decided come in for a closer look.

They play in the sand and surf for a while, then we put leashes on the ones that will let us and lead them back up to the palm trees for a final 5 minutes or so of relaxation and petting before taking them back to their pens.

We try to get them comfortable with a leash, but we aren't militant about it and no training skills are required.
We try to get them comfortable with a leash, but we aren’t militant about it and no training skills are required.

Then we repeat again and again, till it’s time to go. You can get pretty warm doing this, especially in the summer months, so I would strongly recommend staying hydrated. I would also strongly recommend making time to do it if you find yourself in Vieques. It’s a simple equation. More volunteers = more dogs that can be walked. As Margo says, you don’t have to commit to the whole 4 hours. No one is punching time-cards or watching the clock. It’s up to you, whatever time you can spare that day. Everyone is welcome – young, old, locals, expats, tourists – whoever has some time and wants to make a dog’s life a little better. And who wouldn’t want that?

Happy dog. Happy human.
Happy dog. Happy human.

Contact information:
Vieques Humane Society Location
Note: You may see a sign hanging on the side of a shop in Isabel Segunda that says “Vieques Humane Society”. That is not the shelter. That is the thrift store. It raises money for the shelter by selling donated goods. A wonderful organization, it is also something you can visit to support the dogs, but the shelter itself is outside of town.

Vieques Humane Society – 787-741-0209
Margo – 917-455-8951

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