Federal Ban Leaves Thousands of Pets Behind in Puerto Rico

Animals larger than 20 pounds aren’t being allowed on planes, forcing families to choose between their two- and four-legged loved ones. Meanwhile, shelters are overflowing.

Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters

SAN JUAN—As if making a major life-changing decision of escaping the island after Hurricane Maria was not enough, Puerto Ricans were asked to leave their pets behind due to an ongoing restriction enforced by federal authorities.

The majority of the airlines leaving San Juan do not allow families to be accompanied with many pets. This is because federal authorities have taken custody of cargo compartments in order to transport supplies, and the feds are not allowing animals larger than 20 pounds to fly, according to Sylvie Bedrosian, president of Pet Friendly Puerto Rico. Bedrosian estimates that about 2,000 locals left their pets behind as a result of the embargo.

Bedrosian says the embargo violates the No Pet Left Behind FEMA Act put in place after Hurricane Katrina that “authorizes FEMA to provide rescue, care, shelter, and essential needs for individuals with household pets and service animals, and to the household pets and animals themselves following a major disaster or emergency.”

Private companies like United PetSafe, a business that offers pet shipping and transport for animals from San Juan to the U.S., were unable to offer a planned date of resuming their live animal shipping services because of the embargo.

“I understand that most planes coming from the U.S. to Puerto Rico are filled with goods, but what bothers me most is that planes leaving the island are mostly empty. Why take custody of an empty cargo?” Bedrosian questioned.

Florida Gov. Rick Scott informed that more than 27,000 Puerto Ricans had escaped to his state two weeks after Hurricane Maria knocked out power, water, and telecommunications on the island.

JetBlue and Southwest have modified their pet policy to permit up to eight pets on board, but Bedrosian says that’s not enough because not all pets weigh less than 20 pounds. American Airlines did not respond to a request for comment. A United Airlines employee said the embargo was waived for them for last Wednesday until Oct. 31. “I don’t know how they are bypassing the federal embargo. They are the only ones letting pets on cargo,” Bedrosian said.

“I’ve received dozens of calls from people who have lost their jobs here in Puerto Rico and have to flee the island to find work because they have to pay their bills,” Bedrosian said adding that pet owners call her desperately looking for someone to care for their four-legged “family” member.

Veterinarian Victor Collazo told The Daily Beast that in a week he has expedited more travel certificates that he would in a year. “It’s really outstanding how many people have come for a certificate.”

“They allowed me to travel with my small breed, but my two rottweilers were left behind because of the federal embargo,” Roxette Pietri told The Daily Beast from the airport, describing what happened as one of the hardest decisions she’s made.

Meanwhile, pet organizations on the island like Save a Sato, which saves homeless dogs, can barely function. Local newspaper Primera Hora reported that one shelter near Guaynabo left 200 dogs behind because the owner was leaving the island. None of the animal shelters on the island have power, Primera Hora reported, and only half are with running water. Owner Gloria Marti was rationing the food to serve more than 135 dogs the shelter had before Maria.

“I’ve lost count of how many have arrived after the hurricane,” Marti said.

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“Our animal shelters were already at full capacity before the hurricane and now beginning to feel the burden that María left behind,’ Bedrosian said. “Our rescue missions have completely changed. We used to wonder for abandoned pets on the streets and now have to worry about those left on the airports.”