SYCAMORE – A magazine article in an airplane changed Eileen Oprins’ life.
“A group of women went down after (Hurricane) Katrina, and that was my first experience in ‘real rescue,’ as I call it, as opposed to shelters,” Oprins said. “I was on a plane on the way home and I was reading a People (magazine) and found Island Dog in People.”
Island Dog is a nonprofit animal welfare organization dedicated to rescuing dogs that have been abandoned on the streets and beaches of Puerto Rico. There are more than 200,000 homeless dogs on the island. More than 500 stray dogs and cats are euthanized each day in the U.S. territory’s five animal shelters.
“There aren’t enough shelters,” said Oprins, who has volunteered with the organization for six years. “On an island that size with that many people, they should have a lot more than they do. They should have maybe 16.”
Island Dog has several initiatives to help the abandoned dogs. It operates one of the few spay/neuter programs in Puerto Rico and teaches elementary school students about the importance of spaying and neutering. It operates six open-air shelters for 200 feral dogs not tame enough to be adopted. It operates an adoption program and arranges transportation to the U.S. for dogs American tourists encounter and want to adopt.
All dogs under the care of Island Dog are spayed or neutered, vaccinated, tagged and given basic veterinary care.
In Puerto Rico pets are rarely treated like family members, as they are in the United States, according to Island Dog founder and director Katie Block. Island Dog estimates that less than 10 percent of the pet population in Puerto Rico ever gets to a veterinary clinic.
According to the organization, before Island Dog started its spay/neuter program, those services were rare in Puerto Rico for cultural or financial reasons. Some Puerto Ricans believe that it is not “macho” to neuter a male dog.
“We are doing lots of spay/neuters. It’s catching on in Puerto Rico,” Oprins said. “There are so many – there are hundreds on one beach alone.”
Only a limited number of island dogs move to the United States. As she bathed a newly-arrived island dog at a self-serve pet wash last week, Oprins reflected on the process of choosing which dogs come and which must stay.
“It’s not easy,” she said. “This one was in deep need, sitting there with her five puppies in the mud, in the muck and rain, and the sand crabs coming out.”
Island Dog found permanent homes for three of the puppies in Puerto Rico, and the other two came to Illinois with their mother. Fewer than a dozen volunteers like Oprins are responsible for bringing island dogs to the U.S. and finding foster homes for them.
“I did over 100 last year myself,” the nurse and mother of six said. She said she could bring more dogs to the U.S. if Island Dog had more funds and more foster families to care for the dogs until they find “forever” homes.
“They are usually people I work with,” Oprins said of the foster families she relies upon. “I kind of dragged them into this. Sometimes they are acquaintances who say, ‘Why not?’”
Once dogs are placed into a foster home, they find permanent homes fairly quickly, she said, mostly through the group’s Facebook page or Petfinder.com.
Amy Mathey of Sycamore adopted Delilah, a German shepherd mix, last year. She said she has known Oprins for years.
“She loves what she does and she believes in what she is doing,” Mathey said. “She sent me a photo on Facebook and then she brought Delilah and another puppy over for a visit, and we adopted her a few days later.”
“(Delilah) fit in from the very first day,” Mathey added. “Our older German shepherd took her under his wing. He was very protective of her.”
Before Delilah joined Mathey’s family, Oprins gave island dog Nigel to Mathey’s daughter and son-in-law, Kennifer and Charlie Johnson, as a wedding present.
“We think he is a corgi and Jack Russell terrier mix. He is a cool little dog,” Charlie Johnson said. “I am a big dog lover. We talked to (Oprins) about Nigel and she brought him over. We wanted to get him right away.”
“He just loves that he is here,” Johnson said. “They just seem to appreciate everything they have.”