Sometimes dead is better. That was the tagline of Stephen King's 1989 horror/thriller "Pet Sematary". The plot? A family buries their dead pets on a cursed Native American burial ground - and the animals come back to life, albeit in demonic form.
Now if I were to suggest to you that such a place existed in Cabo Rojo, Puerto Rico you might be a bit alarmed. Don't worry. Stephen King deals in supernatural fantasy only. His stuff isn't real. I can assure you, none of the dead animals in Puerto Rico are coming back to life (except maybe Yoli, survivor of the Barceloneta massacre).
Yet - based on the information I have at hand - the movie tagline "Sometimes dead is better" seems unfortunately appropriate for the Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis in Cabo Rojo.
At this location there is an alarmingly high death rate, and (sadly) claims from some staff members that animals are not properly disposed of afterwards. Reports are that some of them have been bagged and thrown out back in the Santuario's very own makeshift pet sematary - all right under the nose of the University of Mayaguez (owners of the land who refuse to renew the lease yet also seemingly overlook the situation - turning a blind eye).
Here is a video referenced in the Puerto Rico Forum for Animal Rights (Yahoo Group) that shows very strong and disturbing images from inside the sanctuary (Updated: Added on Nov. 8th, 2009).
Before even starting to acknowledge some of the issues permitted to occur by some of the administrators/facilitators of the sanctuary, it's vital to understand than these conditions exist almost entirely because the government of Puerto Rico has allowed them to go on. Dead animals linger on the streets of Puerto Rico much the same as the excessive amounts of trash and general litter... and live ones too - far too many of them.
While the public has been largely kept in the dark about the ongoing issues, it is no secret to insiders and various groups:
Cabo Rojo's mayor, Perza Rodriquez, knows about it and has been informed of the issues. The University of Mayaguez knows too. Local veterinarians are keenly familiar with it (the tall mean one & the short kind one), as are associated organizations like Defensores de Animales / Animal Defenders and the Villa Michelle / APAYPA administrators.
So too are the police and judicial system of Cabo Rojo & Mayaguez (including the Coordinator for the Management of Animal Abuse for Mayaguez, Agent Carlos Zambrana who followed up on reports). They have been notified of issues at the sanctuary and have participated in the investigation thus far...
If you are concerned, please contact them and ask them for more information about the status of the situation.
Yet progress is almost non-existent despite currently ongoing legal action, and there is a very strong feeling that everyone wants to stay at arms length. Noone wants to be the one that has to confront the situation head on. Thus, it seems very much like a losing battle. Currently the organization APAC and members of the legal SAFA board are still pressing forward to resolve the situation.
The island is certainly filled with makeshift volunteer organizations trying to help abandoned and street born pets, despite minimal access to funding and reliance primarily on meager donations from concerned citizens.
Without structure, funding, and qualified leadership, it's difficult for them to make a dent, and we end up hearing the occasional rumored horror story of nighttime animal executions in Ponce (unverified), or equally shocking reports of unacceptable animal treatment at the Cabo Rojo facility (this time right out of the mouths of several staff members who were there to witness it first hand).
Did you know the Santuario de Animales San Francisco de Asis receives multiple requests from individuals wanting to drop off adult animals and/or puppies and kittens to the sanctuary every week? This happens despite their no intake policy for new animals. Numerous others simply drop the animals over the fence without permission and leave them there, both at nighttime and out in the open daylight for all to see.
While there has been an effective adoption program (to the US) managed by one associated volunteer, the in flow of new animals overwhelms the out flow of successfully adopted pets by a wide margin.
The great equalizer? Death.
That might sound strange for a sanctuary designated as a "no kill facility", but it's the reality. No kill specifically refers to the policy of not euthanizing any healthy animal regardless of the length of time they reside there without successful adoption. Yet death is a monthly occurrence. Heart worm, massive parasite infestation, bacterial Ehrlichiosis, and Parvo are among the most common sources of their demise.
If you are one of the people that dropped an animal off at the sanctuary (especially puppies), you might have thought you were doing the right thing. However, besides breaking an abandonment law (under Law 154), you also may have sentenced your former pet(s) to death or an extended stay in vastly sub-standard conditions where medical care is NOT assured and not consistent - but sickness, suffering, and insufficient care is commonplace.
The "No Kill" policy is admirable - but if the animals end up suffering, spending a life time locked up in small enclosures, one really has to question whether or not Stephen King's assertion that "Sometimes dead is better" might really be true in this case for many of the animals.
A common response from the inside circle (those who are aware of the ongoing issues) is to ride it out, and hope that the current administration is going to "change". Yet all the evidence is to the contrary, and it is very unlikely to happen.
Former President Dellymar Bernal (firstname.lastname@example.org) was in tearful agreement (during an audio recorded meeting) with the findings that sanctuary founder "Madeline" (her mother) required removal. This occurred after hearing numerous sickening reports of Law 154 violations and accounts of what is thought by many to be generally unstable and hostile behavior by Madeline. The meeting left several attending members horrified and visibly upset after hearing the staff accounts read out loud.
Month's later Bernal and her mother remain at the facility, despite an order by the board for their joint dismissal and removal. Ongoing legal action is in progress despite advocacy by the DDA President that it be suspended and resources directed at animal care instead (a measure that will occur immediately if the former administration accepts the decision of the board to remove them).
This is a common back-off strategy from those who are initially angry at the situation, but fearful that pushing the matter too far could result in the sanctuary being closed and the animal population being euthanized - but it is NOT an effective strategy in changing the situation.
You see, the several different animal organizations also sometimes have disagreements between them. And it may sometimes discourage them from fully supporting projects lead by one of the others. The plight of the animals gets forgotten, and egos get in the way.
There definitely is a clear lack of leadership to drive progress.
Despite Bernal's oft quoted mantra "It is amazing what you can accomplish if you do not care who gets the credit" she seems to be engaged in a power struggle to maintain her position (and her mother's), while forgetting about the best interests of the animals - the ones that are dying.
The reality is, a librarian by profession, she's proven herself far more suited to public outreach (to schools, etc) than as an organizational leader, where the lives of hundreds of animals depend on her decisions and her ability to take the right actions. Right now, she's ignoring Law 154 and blatantly disregarding the decision of her own former board to terminate her from her responsibilities.
Until her and her mother leave the santuario, the awaiting transitional team cannot take over operations. While Bernal is fairly sedated in her disposition when confronted with conflict, her mother is openly hostile and verbally abusive. Starting out as an animal hoarder in her home, no doubt her interests were genuine in the beginning.
However, after many years virtually living in the sanctuary, there are major problems because of her, and she has become a direct threat to the animals under sanctuary care.
Her time there has come to an end, and although she may eventually be held accountable for accused violations of Law 154, at present if this woman really cares about the animals at all, she'll remove herself from the premises and allow the new team to begin re-structuring immediately.
The way things are run right now... "sometimes dead is better" at Cabo Rojo's virtual Pet Sematary.
It's easy for Bernal to find new people to support her. Just show them the animals - but it is never very long before they start to see the problems that are hidden behind the locked fence.
Note: Donations are still being handled via safapr.org and will be used to distribute supplies to the animals. The site is under the control of the new transitional team.
Note: This blog entry contains opinionated commentary on the subject matter. It was created after review of info including formal reports collected during several meetings with staff members/volunteers/witnesses. The municipality of Cabo Rojo and Mayaguez (including the prosecutor's office) have been notified of alleged violations of Law 154. At the time of writing, the prosecutor has not yet filed official charges, but has conducted meetings with the parties involved. A court order from a Cabo Rojo judge also provided an internal investigation team a police escort to evaluate the conditions of the sanctuary and animals with the President of APAC, who removed 13 animals for immediate veterinary services. This was 4 months after initial complaints were filed with no actions taken by any of the parties notified. At least 5 volunteers and/or part-time employees were terminated by Dellymar Bernal (former President) after their cooperation with the investigation. Despite being a No-Kill shelter, a high mortality rate continues. Estimates are that as many as 15-20 animals died or were put to sleep in approximately 30 days. Staff reports are consistent that most deaths occur within the sub-population of animals under the direct care of Madeline.