Nicole DiPaolo planned to meet her in-laws in Puerto Rico. But having seen the plight of homeless dogs on the Caribbean island, she couldn’t just turn her back – and set up a dog rescue organisation. Filmmaker Stephanie Vermillion documented Nicole’s work
As Nicole DiPaolo navigated a maze of streets to the tropical Arroyo Beach in southeast Puerto Rico, her friend noticed movement on the roadside. What started as an amorphous dark speck quickly took shape. It was a grey, spotted dog who’d undoubtedly been abandoned, living in a roadside ridge for months. He was emaciated and visibly sick; Nicole knew she was his last shot at life.
“He was like a skeleton,” she said. “He was almost completely hairless and bleeding. If we hadn’t found him, I don’t think he would’ve been out there much longer.”
Like every trip Nicole takes to Puerto Rico, this drive to the beach in June 2018 was hardly for toes-in-the-sand pleasure. Nicole, founder and president of Massachusetts-based rescue group Paws 4 Survival, has been rescuing stray animals off the streets of Puerto Rico since October 2015.
The idea sparked when she first visited to meet her husband’s family on the island. She saw the plight facing Puerto Rico’s homeless and helpless animals. She couldn’t stand by idly. More than 850 liberated stray dogs and cats later, Nicole knows her work is just beginning –particularly after the horror of Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017.
“Hurricane Maria changed everything,” she said. “I just kept checking Facebook for updates. I saw people in water to their shoulders carrying their dogs to a boat and realised it was happening. It couldn’t get worse, but it did. It’s like we’re starting from scratch.”
Nicole and a small team of Paws 4 Survival volunteers take rescue trips to the island regularly –even more so following the hurricane. They spend days scouring the streets of southern Puerto Rico for any stray dogs or cats they can find. On any given day they can rescue up to eight or more animals (depending on size), before bringing them to the veterinarian’s office for a check-up.
From here, Nicole and her team await health instructions. Some rescues can go home within a few months; others suffering from issues such as heartworm or tumours have to stay longer. Once they’re ready health-wise, the animals take their freedom flights up to the Northeast US to meet their fosters, putting them one step closer to a forever home.
When finding a foster is tough – Paws 4 Survival is always in need of more volunteer fosters – the animals wait in Puerto Rico until a foster home opens up. When the animals are ready, they’re also listed on Paws 4 Survival’s adoption page (and often shared across Facebook and Instagram) so they can find their forever family sooner.
From volunteer fosters to generous donors, the work of Paws 4 Survival is made possible by a loyal community of animal lovers. The team receives donations for health care, animal transport and supplies. Its operations are run by a small group of volunteers in Puerto Rico and the Northeast US. One of Paws 4 Survival’s most dedicated volunteers is Nicole’s 16-year-old daughter Lexie, who is on the ground rescuing on virtually every Puerto Rico trip.
This strong support and dedicated community has given 850 stray animals a new chance at life. That said, Nicole knows her work is hardly scratching the surface – and it keeps her up at night.
“Before Hurricane Maria, reports were showing 250,000 stray dogs and 500,000 cats were on the streets of Puerto Rico,” she said. “We’re now seeing one million cats and 500,000 dogs. We didn’t think it could get worse, but it has. There are so many nights I think about all the dogs we can’t save. It’s terrible.”
Like most non-profits, resources limit the number of animals Paws 4 Survival can save. They run regular fundraisers and campaigns, but it’s an uphill battle with a stray population like this. While the pain of leaving any dog hurts her to the core, Nicole finds solace in knowing that every stray she can rescue will begin a new, love-filled chapter of life. Perhaps that’s why the emaciated grey Australian Cattle Dog/ Dalmatian Mix, Derrick (as her team named him), mustered up every ounce of energy to show her he was ready.
“He came running, wagging his tail and licking our faces,” she said. “He was so excited to be pet. Whatever that person or family did to him before was completely erased from his mind. He only wanted love.”