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Operation paws


NEW YORK >> On a Sunday morning in March, the cavernous arrival hall at Terminal 8 at Kennedy International Airport was virtually deserted save for a cluster of people wearing white T-shirts with black “Sato Project” logos huddled near the cargo entrance. But when American Airlines Flight 648 from San Juan, Puerto Rico, touched down and a small, tanned woman wearing a white fedora and blue sweat pants emerged from customs, the group snapped to attention. Christina Beckles, 39, a former Golden Gloves boxing champion and the founder of the Sato Project, a rescue organization that brings abandoned and abused dogs to the continental United States from Puerto Rico, had just landed with 17 animals in tow.

Beckles had spent the previous four days in Puerto Rico, and it had been an emotional trip: On Day Three she had seen a puppy hit and killed by a sport utility vehicle that sped away. Now, she stopped to hug her husband, Bobby Beckles, 44, a professional stuntman, and dissolved into tears in his arms.

Then she wiped her eyes, thanked her white-shirted entourage and got down to business: keeping tabs on the procession of crates streaming into the arrival hall. Inside were 17 satos — Puerto Rican slang for mongrels — 16 of which Christina Beckles had rescued from Dead Dog Beach, the notorious and remote spot on the island’s southeastern shore, where for decades owners have routinely dumped unwanted animals.

As the containers piled up, the Beckleses methodically unlocked them, and out spilled the dogs: among them six fuzzy puppies whose mother had died while giving birth; two other puppy siblings found in a sealed cardboard box in the beach’s parking lot; Shiner, a personable terrier Beckles had plucked impromptu from the local Humane Society; and Murphy, a brindled boxer mix who had turned up, wet and hungry, on the beach one morning. Upon release, the dogs cavorted as if on a play date; the smallest puppies were cuddled in volunteers’ arms.

Other people have wrestled with the sato problem before. A 2007 episode in Barceloneta village, where hired “exterminators” rounded up dozens of dogs and threw them off a bridge, focused attention on Puerto Rico’s treatment of animals and led to a proposed tourist boycott of the island.

The issue was brought to light again by a People magazine article in 2008 about the frustrations of rescuers working at Dead Dog Beach. That same year, Public Law 154, which made animal abuse and abandonment illegal, became official, though advocates say that it is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Maritza Rodriguez, the executive director of the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, said her shelter took in 100 unwanted dogs daily. “Euthanasia in Puerto Rico is around 97 percent,” she said. “Adoptable animals are dying and suffering on our streets and beaches.” Taking animals off the island “is not the solution,” Rodriguez added, “but it is one more chance to save lives.”

Since November, when the British-born Beckles struck out on her own after several years of volunteering for other organizations but feeling dissatisfied by the results they achieved, she has become the unlikely but unrelenting savior of Dead Dog Beach. Operating out of her apartment in Brooklyn, and with minimal financial support, she has taken 81 dogs from the beach, paid for their medical care and placed 60 of the dogs healthy enough to make the trip to the United States in adoptive homes.

Without Beckles’ intervention, all of the dogs would likely be dead from starvation, sickness or worse.

By necessity, she has cultivated a network of volunteers on the island and stateside who share her passion. Two of the tiniest arrivals on Sunday were taken to their adopter in Boston by Lillian Penney of Center Moriches, N.Y., whose first encounter with the Sato Project came in February. While in Puerto Rico on a family vacation, Penney found a starving, pregnant dog in a restaurant parking lot. “Nobody wanted to help,” she said. “It broke my heart.”

After connecting with Beckles online, Penney was quickly enlisted as an escort for three puppies aboard the flight to Kennedy Airport from San Juan — and she ended up adopting one of them. “When you see the compassion she has, you feel like you just have to help,” she said of Beckles. “You look in the eyes of these dogs and actually see the difference you’re making.”

Dead Dog Beach, officially known as Playa Lucia, is nondescript in most ways, but notorious for the vagrant animals dumped there and left to fend for themselves or die. Sometimes the dogs arrive in cardboard boxes, nine terrified puppies crammed in. Sometimes they are booted out of vehicles. Many have wounds from abuse. Beckles and her surrogates do their work by daylight; after dark, the beach is safe neither for them nor the dogs because of youths who gather there to party and to use the dogs for target practice, local rescuers say.

“My goal is for it to be called by its real name, Playa Lucia, again someday,” she said.

Beckles heard about the beach from her husband: Five years ago, he was in Puerto Rico on a monthlong shoot for a miniseries when the driver of the van in which he and other crew members were riding hit a dog — on purpose. “There was a mother and her pups crossing the road, and our driver didn’t even try to avoid them,” Bobby Beckles said. The TV crew forced the driver to stop. “We gathered up the puppies and got them away from the road and fed them our lunch,” he said. Then he called his wife.

“I wasn’t Rescue 101 until I went to Puerto Rico to visit Bobby while he was on that shoot,” Christina Beckles said. “I went out to the beach with food for the dogs, and the people there looked at me like I was feeding rats. It touched a nerve in me so bad that I called every rescue organization there was and asked if I could help them do public relations, donate, anything.”

Beckles began coordinating rescues for two groups, Amigos de los Animales (Friends of the Animals) and Manos por Patas (Hands for Paws). She met Sandra Cintron, who lives in Yabucoa, near the beach, and for the last 12 years has been carrying food and water to the stray dogs every morning. Cintron became Beckles’ eyes and ears on the beach: She telephones Beckles each morning at 7 to report on the status of the dogs, she houses puppies temporarily and takes dogs to the veterinarian as often as needed. Twice a day, she and two new volunteers replenish the kibble and water stations the Sato Project has set up.

The dogs that Beckles and Cintron remove from the beach are brought to Candelero Animal Hospital in Humacao, where the veterinarian, Dr. Bianca Aguirre Hernandez, is highly sympathetic to their cause. Aguirre Hernandez vaccinates and neuters the animals and provides any other care they need. Beckles has an outstanding veterinary bill of $8,000 there, but the hospital lets her run a tab.

Beckles flies to Puerto Rico five or six times a year. Since November, when she officially went solo after an 18-month affiliation with a group called Pets Alive fell apart because of a business disagreement, she has flown dogs to the continental United States on a near-weekly basis, operating under the Sato Project umbrella and through a sister group, the Dead Dog Beach Project.

Once they leave Puerto Rico, Beckles’ dogs are introduced to their adopters or placed temporarily in foster homes. She charges the adopters $200 for a puppy and $250 for an adult dog. She also works with two nonprofit shelters. Mount Pleasant Animal Shelter, in East Hanover, N.J., took in five baby Chihuahuas that Beckles had flown into Newark in February, then took another five puppies from the Sunday airlift. Last Hope, a shelter on Long Island, took several of the puppies as well, and all of them have found homes.

Inevitably, the Beckleses also end up temporarily housing a number of the dogs, like Tiny, a one-pound, baldheaded Chihuahua who had been the runt of her litter and developed alopecia. Her initial adoption fell through after the adopters heard about her fur issues. The Beckleses nursed her with doses of scrambled eggs, salmon and chicken. Within two weeks her fur had grown back, and Bobby Beckles was angling to keep her. “My husband’s become a dog hoarder,” Christina Beckles said jokingly.

After regaining her fur and gaining a pound, Tiny flew to Las Vegas on March 21 to join Nanook, a sato adopted earlier this month by a couple there.

To say Beckles operates on a shoestring budget would be an understatement. She called it “more like a thread.”

“I couldn’t do this at all without Bobby’s support,” she added, “both emotionally and financially.” Whatever costs aren’t covered by donations, the couple absorb. Last year, he spent about $20,000 rescuing dogs; this year, with his wife expanding her efforts, the cost could be twice that. They have scheduled their first fundraiser for April 22 at a Long Island restaurant, and they rely heavily on Facebook pleas for donations.

On a recent Monday afternoon, Christina Beckles left the ground-floor apartment in Cobble Hill that she shares with her husband and their “forever” dogs, Basher (a Jack Russell terrier) and BoomBoom (a speckled sato that Beckles rescued five years ago), and headed to Gleason’s Gym in the Dumbo neighborhood for a training session.

She no longer competes in Golden Gloves events, which are limited to amateur fighters under age 35. But she occasionally fights at special events at the gym, like the bout she has scheduled in June as part of a masters competition for older boxers.

After the workout, Beckles, a chronic hugger, embraced Saxby and her former trainer, Martin Gonzalez, and then jumped into her Jeep to go home. The dogs were waiting, including Tiny, who had yet to go to Las Vegas, and a sweaty, weary Beckles needed to reboot with a chocolate milk.

Back in the couple’s kitchen, there was a whiteboard with the names of the dogs in her program, each listed by status: at the vet, in foster care, at Cintron’s or still on the beach. “Bobby made me do that so that he’d know where all the doggies are, just in case something happens to me,” she said. “It’s a good idea.”

Her cellphone rang. It was a call from Puerto Rico. Two new puppies were on the beach. Cintron had named them Mocha and Daisy and fed them, and she asked if she could take them under the Sato Project umbrella. Was there enough money? No, there was not. But, yes, she should rescue the puppies.

“I need to clone myself,” Beckles said, adding that if she did, she would make two significant alterations: Her clone would be independently wealthy and would not have a dog allergy requiring weekly injections. She adjusted Tiny in her lap and drank the rest of her milk. Then she grabbed a marker and added Mocha and Daisy to the crowded flow chart on the kitchen counter.

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