YABUCOA, Puerto Rico Some visitors to Puerto Rico are leaving with an unusual souvenir one of the thousands of scrappy abandoned dogs that roam the island's beaches.
Hundreds of abandoned canines are being scooped up and flown to the U.S.: some by tourists unexpectedly touched by their plight, others as part of an expensive organized rescue effort.
But critics say the canine airlift does little to reduce the problem of stray dogs in Puerto Rico and ends up fueling overcrowding at the U.S. shelters, where many of the dogs inevitably end up.
At least 175 dogs have been rescued in the past couple of years from Yabucoa Beach, which activists nicknamed "Dead Dog Beach" because of the strays that roam the coast and are sometimes found dead of disease, starvation or gunshots. Similar rescue efforts have been undertaken in the Bahamas and elsewhere in the Caribbean.
The Save A Sato Foundation "sato" is Puerto Rican for mutt recruits volunteers to bring dogs back on commercial flights and sends between 1,500 and 2,000 dogs a year from Puerto Rico to American shelters, where they are often quickly adopted.
Other dogs return unexpectedly with American tourists, who often call the Humane Society International seeking advice on how to bring back dogs they find in the Caribbean.
Christina Aquilino, 39, of Mendon, Mass., has flown to Puerto Rico twice to bring back abandoned dogs on her own initiative after she adopted a Puerto Rican Jack Russell-terrier mix named Odie in her hometown.
She has spent more than $800 on airline tickets, staying less than 24 hours on the island each time. The dogs often ride in crates in the cargo hold, but Aquilino brought two tiny Chihuahua look-alikes back home with her in the cabin.
"It's money well-spent," she said. "To see these dogs board the planes ... it brings tears to my eyes."
But the Humane Society discourages such measures and instead wants Puerto Rico and other parts of the Caribbean to develop their own animal welfare programs, said Kelly O'Meara, its director of international programs.
"We don't see importing animals into the U.S. as a solution," she said. "We have our share of homeless animals already."
However, some shelter managers in the U.S. say some people specifically ask for "satos" from Puerto Rico or "potcakes" from the Bahamas, named after the discarded "cake" that a peas-and-rice dish leaves at the bottom of a pot.
"Potcakes seem to be pretty athletic," said Bridget Barry, a veterinarian at a shelter in Ithaca, N.Y. "I guess you have to be tough to survive on the streets."
At Yabucoa Beach, scores of dogs roam an abandoned marina, surviving on garbage scraps and drinking from salty puddles but attracting little public sympathy or attention from Puerto Rico's government.
There's no pet registration law in Puerto Rico and little spaying or neutering, so animal shelters are overwhelmed and must kill many of the dogs they receive, said Victor Collazo, president of the island's Association of Medical Veterinarians.
Florida-based Manos por Patas Hands for Paws recruits veterinarians to help control strays in Puerto Rico by spaying and neutering, while also seeking volunteers to fly them to the U.S.
The group has helped rescue about 175 dogs in recent years from Yabucoa Beach, said Ginny Cornett, a biologist from Florida who visits Puerto Rico a couple times a year. But most strays are too sick or aggressive to travel, so they are spayed or neutered and released back into the wild.
Dog-lovers have to do something, Cornett said.
"After you see it," she said, "you can't walk away."