This Month’s Featured Article


By Published On: March 4th, 2024

When Melissa Smith and her son Jake were on vacation in Puerto Rico in 2019, the last thing they expected was to bring home three stray dogs. 

“We knew the stray animal situation was bad in Puerto Rico, but I don’t think we realized just how bad,” she said. “We got lost one of the days we were there and ended up at a deserted beach on Roosevelt Roads in Ceiba, which is a big dumping ground for dogs and cats.” 

According to the SATO Project, which is an organization that works to rescue and rehome strays from Puerto Rico, there are approximately half a million stray dogs and over a million stray cats in the commonwealth. 

Melissa and Jake came across a woman named Maria who had been feeding the dogs, and they very quickly hit it off with her. Jake immediately took to three of the dogs. “I just remember that I yelled at him to put them in the car,” Melissa mused. “We smuggled them into the hotel under towels and gave them a bath. I had no idea how we were going to get them home, but I knew that we couldn’t leave them.”

The start of it all

When they got back from vacation, Melissa, who lives in Pleasant Valley, NY, and is a school counselor for North Salem Central School District, began devising a plan to save the strays with one of her coworkers, Kylie McCarron. 

Kylie, who is an English teacher for North Salem, was immediately on board. Thus, Hope for Dogs and Cats PR was born. “It was friends and teachers who were adopting at first, nothing too big or crazy,” Melissa said. 

Following the pandemic, Melissa, Kylie, and Jake began networking with other local women who were rescuing strays from Puerto Rico. Through this, they met a retired police officer who introduced them to a handful of nonprofits – Flight Angels, Flight Dogz, and Flight Nanny Pet Transport – that work to allow tourists to travel home with a dog or cat on the airplane. From there, someone from the organization picks the dog or cat up from the airport and then brings them to a foster home until they are adopted. 

“Puerto Rico is a territory of the United States, which makes it easier to transport animals,” Melissa said. 

Prior to transport, the pets have to be medically cleared, have all of their age-appropriate vaccinations, and have a flight certificate that clears them to fly. From there, Melissa, Kylie, Jake, and a handful of volunteers will meet the tourists at airports all over the Tri-state to pick up the strays that people have brought back with them. 

Currently, both Melissa and Kylie are fostering dogs and cats in their houses. “It’s very rewarding, but it can also be very emotionally and physically exhausting,” Kylie said. “It’s hard not to hate people when you see animal abuse and abandonment.” 

Melissa and Kylie said that Facebook has been instrumental in their operation. “It’s a very grassroots campaign,” Kylie said. Primarily, they network with other people and organizations through word-of-mouth and Facebook. They’re a part of multiple tourist groups that are based in Puerto Rico, as well as rescue and adoption groups in the Tri-state area. 

“We have a great foster located in Kent, CT, and I have to give a shout out to one of our flight volunteers, Caroline. She adopted a dog from us and connected us to a new foster, as well as to people that she knows are traveling to Puerto Rico and are willing to transport animals back,” Kylie said. 

Kylie also shared a story of a woman who posted on one of the Puerto Rico tourist pages on Facebook who tried to catch a stray cat but couldn’t. 

“I reached out to her and we came up with a plan, but she wasn’t able to catch the kitten and then she had to leave the next day. She asked me what I thought the chances were of her being able to get the kitten somehow. I wasn’t optimistic, but I started reaching out to some locals, and it worked! I got connected with one of the rescuers, and she went and caught the kitten, got her vaccinated, and flew her up to the United States. It was a great story that I didn’t think was going to happen.” 

Biggest challenges

Naturally, the biggest challenge is money. Hope for Dogs and Cats PR just received their nonprofit status and up this point, Melissa and Kylie have been footing the bills themselves. 

“By the time you pay for the flight, the vetting, boarding, gas, and food, no one’s making money on this,” Melissa explained. “We do it because it’s a true passion for us.” 

Another challenge is screening potential adopters. Melissa and Kylie agreed that they’ve been very lucky up to this point and have had good experiences with adopters. “Every once in a while we have someone who’s challenging and causes us a lot of stress. 99.9% of our adopters have been amazing. They send us photos and keep us updated afterwards,” Melissa said. 

Arguably their biggest challenge is trying to decide which animals to bring home. “It’s so hard,” Kylie said. “Everybody wants young kittens. There are a lot of Siamese on the island, and thankfully they’re very easy to adopt. It’s hard to have to choose among the animals, but we can’t save them all no matter how hard we try.” 

An unexpected challenge that they’ve also encountered is many people questioning why they are bringing dogs and cats back from Puerto Rico, rather than working to help animals in the states. “I’ve gotten questions like, ‘how come you can’t help the animals here? Why do you have to go to Puerto Rico?’ That’s been an interesting thing to deal with,” Kylie said. “I think that helping animals is helping animals. I’ve had to defend myself as to why I’m taking cats and dogs from Puerto Rico instead of here on more than one occasion.” 

Melissa has encountered something similar. “Many people think that Puerto Rico is another country. It’s not; it’s a territory of the United States,” she said. “If you’re helping an animal, you’re helping an animal, and that makes all the difference in that animal’s life. Many of the ignorant comments have come from people who aren’t rescuing any animals.” 

Melissa also said that there’s a cultural lack of understanding of how to treat animals in Puerto Rico. “On the other hand, there’s also a percentage of the population that’s so desperate to save them that they’ll spend their money on the strays instead of taking care of themselves.” 

They work closely with the Vieques Island Animal Sanctuary, a no-kill nonprofit organization in Vieques, PR. “They’ve been very successful and have a great program for spaying and neutering to control the population,” Kylie said. 

Biggest rewards

What’s the most rewarding part? Finding the animals loving homes. 

“It can get depressing at times, but you’re actually making a difference,” Kylie said. “I’ve always been an animal rights person, and this is a chance to put that into practice and create action. I think that’s the most rewarding.” 

Rescuing and fostering animals is a family affair for Kylie as well. “I’m teaching my daughters about service, and they’re seeing how rewarding it is firsthand,” she said. “The first time we had to adopt out a kitten, my daughter cried and cried. It was very hard. But the more we can adopt out, the more we’re helping and affecting change.” 

For Melissa, the rewards are two-fold. On the one hand, of course it’s about helping animals, but on the other, Melissa said that it’s also about helping humans. 

“As hard as it can get here sometimes, I just know what the ladies go through in Puerto Rico. They’re on the front lines and getting the sick animals that they have to treat. It’s hard,” she said. “It’s also rewarding to know that we’re not only helping the local animals, but also the local rescuers.” 

She also notes that a lot of the reward lies in the fact that oftentimes in this endeavor, total strangers come together for one common cause. “It’s so powerful because the world is such a mess right now,” she said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. It’s tourists helping tourists helping animals.” 

Looking ahead

What’s next? Well Jake and his girlfriend Kate are traveling to Puerto Rico next month to pick up a few puppies to bring home. “They’ve been so great through all of this,” Melissa said. “Most kids don’t drive to Hartford on a Saturday night to pick up dogs,” she added. 

As for ways to help, Hope for Dogs and Cats PR is always looking for volunteers. It offers community service for high school and college students as well. It also needs people willing to foster cats and dogs before the animals get adopted. 

“Getting animals adopted is our number one priority,” Melissa said. “That’s the center. Finances, volunteers, and community connections are all vital in helping us get animals adopted.” 

The organization is also looking to have at least three fundraisers each year and to partner with schools and local businesses. “We want to educate people, and we’d love to see more people involved,” Melissa said. “We’d love to partner with organizations like the Girl Scouts and the Dutchess County Office for the Aging to get people of all ages involved.” 

Melissa and Kylie would also like to host fundraisers to collect items to help take care of the animals, including leashes, beds, food, dewormers, etc. They’re always looking for volunteers to transport pets from Puerto Rico to the States, as well as for people to do pickups at the airports. 

“If you do happen to go to Puerto Rico, we’re always looking for ways to fly pets back safely,” Kylie said. “You pick them up in a carrier, tuck them under your seat, and then someone will be there to meet you and pick them up when you land. It’s so important and significant.” 

In total, Melissa, Kylie, and Jake have adopted out more than 500 animals. “That’s a number we’re really proud of,” Melissa said. “We plan on continuing what we’re doing and helping as many animals as we can.” 

Additionally, they were featured in a documentary, For SATOs Sake, about the plight of the dogs in Puerto Rico and their dedicated rescuers. “The documentary will hopefully be coming to the Hudson Valley and Litchfield County theaters in late spring and summer,” Melissa said. 

You can follow Hope for Dogs and Cats PR on their Facebook page. If you’re interested in volunteering or collaborating with them, you can reach out to Melissa at