Northern Scottsdale resident Kari Nienstedt has flown to Puerto Rico twice this year for a total of 14 days, and she plans to return two more times in 2019.
But she’s not a tourist.
Nienstadt is helping to spay and neuter around 500 animals each day she’s there.
The senior director of council engagement for the Humane Society of the United States, she’s just one of many Humane Society employees and members taking part in a high-quality, high-volume spay/neuter initiative called Spayathon for Puerto Rico – which aims to improve animals’ welfare and reduce the number of strays on the streets of Puerto Rico.
The initiative, launched after the devastation of Hurricane Maria, initially set a goal to alter 20,000 dogs and cats; and in just two trips, they’ve already surpassed it, so far spaying and neutering over 23,000 animals.
“I am so thrilled to see this process, and it’s just been incredible to be a part of it,” Nienstedt said. “There’s still two more clinics – one in February and one in May – so we’re really going to blow our goal numbers completely out of the water.”
During Hurricane Maria, many residents were forced to leave their pets behind as the families fought to survive. Those animals were either taken into shelters or became homeless.
According to the Humane Society of Puerto Rico, there were more than 500,000 stray dogs and more than one million stray cats as of September.
While Puerto Rico has always had a stray animal problem, it quickly reached crisis levels after Hurricane Maria.
“This was already an area that had a large percentage of people living under the poverty level, close to 50 percent of the population,” Nienstedt said. “They already had a very large stray animal population, so they were already needing some assistance, and then Maria hit, and it was something that we just needed to help out.”
Each round lasts seven days, and during those seven days, veterinarians spay, neuter and treat as many animals as possible with rabies, leptospirosis and other essential vaccinations.
The first Spayathon round took place in June, and over 5,500 dogs and cats were spayed or neutered and vaccinated.
When Nienstedt returned from round two in early November, she was overcome with emotion.
“It’s hard to put into words how incredible it was to have these people,” she said. “You would think that people would be irritable or grouchy after having waited in line with their animals all night, but people were wonderful. They were so, so happy to be there – so grateful for help.”
Nienstedt said that when the clinic would close as late at 10 p.m., people were already lining up for the next day.
“The next day, we’d arrive at about 6, 6:30, and we’d open the doors at 7,” she said. “They were long hours, and it was a lot of work.”
It was difficult for Nienstedt to turn away hundreds of animals and owners.
“It’s hard to see that and it’s hard to turn away these people who have been waiting a long time and who care so much for their animals,” she said. “It’s physically and emotionally exhausting, but it’s so fulfilling.”
One moment Nienstedt believes epitomizes the whole project, involving a woman who was first in line one day.
She had been waiting in line overnight, and had gone through the whole process of getting her dog taken to surgery.
Typically, the pet owners will sit in the bleachers and wait for their pets, as they’re instructed to do, but this woman didn’t.
“She looked around and found a broom and helped us clean for the day,” Nienstedt said. “I was just speechless.”
Nienstedt gave her a big hug and thanked her. The woman thanked Nienstedt, too.
“It was just so heartwarming, and I think that is just such a perfect example of the people we met,” Nienstedt said. “These people care so deeply for their animals that they’re willing to wait overnight. These folks were investing a significant amount of time to be there, and it was really touching to see how warm and friendly and gracious they always were.”
Nienstedt said she was walking, on average, 10 miles a day inside the coliseum where the clinic was held.
As physically demanding as the trips are, though, she’s looking forward to returning for the last two rounds.
“I’m looking forward to our next clinic in February to head back and see some of my Puerto Rican friends that I’ve made and to help some more animals,” she said.
The next two rounds take place Feb. 3-9 and May 3-9.