LK Weiss and her wife, Laura Kloosterman, saw the photo on the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland website on a Wednesday afternoon in January. A snowstorm that was being described as a “bomb cyclone” would be in full force during adoption hours at the Westbrook shelter the following day, but the two women didn’t care.

“We were the only ones there,” Weiss said. “The whole staff was psyched that we came for this dog, and they were all so nice and helpful. I saw her face, and I was like, ‘I’m done. This is it.’ ”

The dog they named Duck got a new family in the middle of a nor’easter. Perhaps it was fitting, because she came to Maine in the aftermath of a hurricane. Duck is one of nearly 170 dogs that have come to the Animal Refuge League from Puerto Rico since Hurricane Maria ravaged the island last fall.

“We really found that we are making a really big impact in Puerto Rico, and it is certainly saving a lot of lives,” said Jeana Roth, director of community engagement at the Animal Refuge League. “Our adopters really respond to the dogs.”

When Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory Sept. 20, it destroyed the island’s power grid, demolished countless homes and crippled the road infrastructure. Six months later, thousands of people and businesses are still without power. Dozens of Mainers volunteered there with the disaster response from the American Red Cross.

The Animal Refuge League has been accepting dogs from Puerto Rico for five years. The organization works with All Sato Rescue, a nonprofit that brings homeless dogs from the island to the Northeast. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the shelter decided to help with relief efforts in its own way. It increased the number of dogs it was taking in from All Sato Rescue, and that steady stream of adoptable pets has continued over months. Dogs are now coming to Westbrook from San Juan once a week, and since the start of 2017, 350 dogs have arrived at the Animal Refuge League from Puerto Rico.

“Portland is just the most amazing partner,” said Twig Mowatt, board member and founder of All Sato Rescue. “They just go way above and beyond. They don’t just take our cute little lapdogs. They take older dogs. They take three-legged dogs. They take deaf dogs. They give everybody a chance, and they do a really, really great job at the perfect placement.”

In Puerto Rico, stray dogs are called “satos.” The island has long struggled with dog overpopulation because of low spay and neutering rates and a lack of funding for shelters. The local humane society often works with rescue groups like All Sato Rescue to find homes for abandoned dogs, and volunteers often visit beaches or other common sites for abandoning animals to bring satos into their care.

Mowatt, a Portland native who now lives in Massachusetts, became interested in satos when she adopted a dog from Puerto Rico more than a decade ago. She helped start All Sato Rescue in 2008. Now, the group works with partner shelters in Florida, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New Jersey and Maine. In addition to the Animal Refuge League of Greater Portland, All Sato Rescue lists the shelters in Brunswick and Waterville on its website. Last year, the group rescued 2,500 dogs.

Puerto Rican volunteers foster satos until they can be transported to the continental United States on American Airlines cargo flights. Dogs are transported three seasons of the year; summer is too hot. States like Maine require a series of vaccines and a quarantine period before dogs can be transported from out-of-state partners. Once they arrive at the Animal Refuge League, Roth said they are often adopted in less than two weeks. Last year, the total number of dog adoptions at the shelter was 1,226.

Roth said the partnership between the Animal Refuge League and All Sato Rescue will continue. This week, a group of four staff members and volunteers will travel to Puerto Rico to meet local volunteers and assist with rescues. They will share images and videos from the trip on social media, and at the end of the visit, they will help bring a group of dogs back to Maine. Roth said they also expect to visit the local humane society and spay-and-neuter clinics.

“We know they were badly damaged during the hurricane,” Roth said. “We want to visit with the animals and see what life is like for them.”

Mowatt said the Westbrook shelter takes more adult dogs more often than any other shelter partner.

“Portland is one of the top there in terms of volume,” she said.

Despite the trauma of abandonment and a natural disaster, Roth and Mowatt said satos usually have a sweet temperament. They have been socialized by tourists on the beaches in Puerto Rico, and they are often fostered by volunteers who have other pets. For Weiss and Kloosterman, that proved true with Duck.

“She’s incredibly snuggly and affectionate,” said Weiss, who owns a graphic design studio in Portland.

The 12-pound dog likes to go on outings with her family, and she usually rides in an L.L. Bean canvas bag embroidered with her name. She looks like a puppy because she is so small, but the shelter estimated she is about 3 years old. Her breed is unclear, but Weiss thinks she has chihuahua in her. Given her home climate, they were surprised by how much she loved the snow.

“We tried coats and boots, but she ended up wanting to be free in the snow,” Weiss said. “She jumps around like a bunny.”

Weiss had previously owned a dog, but this was her first experience adopting a rescue. She said her experience with the Animal Refuge League and learning about All Sato Rescue convinced her to always adopt from a local shelter.

“These dogs need a home, and they need people,” she said.


Correction:  The Animal Refuge League has been accepting dogs from All Sato Rescue for five years, but began to increase the number of rescues in 2017. A previous version of this story misstated the year the league began its partnership with All Sato Rescue.

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