Sato is a Puerto Rican slang term for a mixed breed, stray dog, a kind of canine that Chrissy Beckles believes are beautiful and smart, armed with an awe-inspiring resilience.
But take a trip to what is morbidly known as “Dead Dog Beach” in Yabucoa, Puerto Rico (PR), and you’ll see thousands of dogs left uncared for and alone. In total, an estimated 300,000-500,000 satos are milling about PR at any given the time, an island roughly the size of Connecticut.
Ten years ago, Beckles and her husband were visiting the island and were horrified by the multitude of suffering and severe hunger that they saw. She spent the duration of her trip feeding them and trying to get them veterinary care. Beckles — who’s a champion amateur boxer — vowed to keep fighting for them once she returned to her home in New York.
She started volunteering for a few rescue groups on the island by making return trips to care for the animals and donating money, and the couple adopted their first sato, Boom Boom. Soon after, she founded The Sato Project as an official nonprofit dedicated to rescuing these dogs and reducing the reproduction rate through an ambitious spay, neuter, vaccine and microchip program.
The Sato Project has a “small but very mighty team” in both PR and NY.
Volunteers go to Dead Dog Beach daily to provide food (in the most awful of cases, dogs resort to eating rocks), fresh water, and comfort for the dogs there, as well as coordinating vet care and spearheading rescue missions.
In addition to the neutering program, The Sato Project also pushed for the installation of gates at Dead Dog Beach to discourage the dumping of dogs.
Once rescued and healthy enough to travel, volunteers in NY meet the dogs at the airport and then transport them to their foster or forever families (they’re currently in need of a large SUV to use as their “Sato Shuttle”).
The majority of dogs are fostered in NY, but the group has sent dogs all over the U.S. for adoption.
For Beckles, The Sato Project’s Founder and President, “there really is no greater joy than seeing a dog that was near death, rehabilitated, healthy and loving life with their new family.”
Natalie Cash, a New Yorker who works at the Bronx Zoo, promised her adopted Ethiopian twins a dog for their tenth birthday. After already serving as a Sato volunteer, there was no question where their newest family member would come from: their soon-to-be family sato was abandoned with her nine puppies on Dead Dog Beach in June 2015.
Natalie and her husband adopted the mother and named her Kalkidan, an Amharic name which means a spoken oath or promise. “I don’t know what her early life was like or what she had to overcome in order to survive her difficult start,” says Cash, “but she is the perfect dog, a champion snuggler, a crazy legs sleeper, all-around charmer.”
They also wound up fostering — then keeping — one of her pups six months later.
“We hug dogs, clean crates, walk dogs, try to show them that they are safe and loved — and that all kinds of great things are coming their way,” says volunteer Marisa Scali, who serves as a transport volunteer and foster mom. “Seeing a shy or confused dog transform into a confident, playful, happy dog is priceless. And kind of addicting.”
The nonprofit relies solely on donations and is about to celebrate its fifth anniversary, having saved more than 1,000 dogs to date.
Executive Coordinator Pat Nesbit routinely cleans, cuddles and walks the pups upon their arrival in the U.S.
“We follow the stories from the moment they are rescued and brought into the safety of our organization all the way through weeks and months after they are with their new families,” says Nesbit, who is also a foster parent for the pups.
“Knowing the condition they were found in, seeing the pictures of how they looked when they were found and then seeing them happy and loved, that’s why we do this.”
One of the volunteers quoted Mark Twain, noting that indeed, it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.
Those words also ring true for Beckles, both in her boxing career, and her mission to keep fighting to save these satos.
“I have held dogs in my arms that are dying and they have survived. Because we fight for every single one of them,” she said.
“There are others that do not make it, and when that happens, the only comfort we can take is that they did not die on that beach, terrified, alone and unloved. The ones that make it are our fuel to always go back for the next one.”
Featured Photo Credit: Niko KoppelShare this article: