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Rescued Puerto Rican pups land in Pittsburgh to start new life

Aaron Aupperlee
| Sunday, Jan. 28, 2018, 12:15 p.m.
People waiting for their baggage pet dogs brought back from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid, at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018. FurKids is a group dedicated to seeking help for animals in life-threatening situations.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
People waiting for their baggage pet dogs brought back from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid, at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018. FurKids is a group dedicated to seeking help for animals in life-threatening situations.
Josh Knauer, 45, of Squirrel Hill, holds a dog rescued from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Josh Knauer, 45, of Squirrel Hill, holds a dog rescued from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
FurKid's volunteers, Ashley Fohls, 30, Adam Knauer, 13, and Josh Knauer, 45, hold the dogs they rescued while in Puerto Rico at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
FurKid's volunteers, Ashley Fohls, 30, Adam Knauer, 13, and Josh Knauer, 45, hold the dogs they rescued while in Puerto Rico at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
Adam Knauer, 13, of Squirrel Hill, holds a dog rescued from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
Adam Knauer, 13, of Squirrel Hill, holds a dog rescued from Puerto Rico by the group FurKid at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
FurKid's volunteers, Ashley Fohls, 30, Adam Knauer, 13, and Josh Knauer, 45, hold the dogs they rescued while in Puerto Rico at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.
Nate Smallwood | Tribune-Review
FurKid's volunteers, Ashley Fohls, 30, Adam Knauer, 13, and Josh Knauer, 45, hold the dogs they rescued while in Puerto Rico at Pittsburgh International Airport on Jan. 28, 2018.

Five of the newest Pittsburghers arrived held close, their heads rubbed between the ears, their fur petted, their tongues finding cheeks and chins to lick.

For the five dogs flown to Pittsburgh on Saturday night, their hard, dangerous and deadly life on the streets of Puerto Rico came to an end, and a new life, one in the home of loving family in Western Pennsylvania, was about to start.

"This little guy, he greeted us right when we got off the plane in San Juan," said Jennifer Bird, director and founder of FurKid Rescue, said as she knelt down and nuzzled one of the dogs at Pittsburgh International Airport. "So I've been trying to get him to be my best friend since."

Bird and three volunteers with FurKid Rescue traveled to Puerto Rico last week to help repair and clean up a shelter in Rincón and to save dogs left on the streets in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria.

Puerto Rico has always had street dogs, Bird said, strays accustomed to foraging and fighting for food. But after Hurricane Maria devastated the island in September, leaving millions without power for months and struggling to survive, pets have been abandoned, left behind and turned out, overwhelming shelters and living on the streets. Those dogs, unprepared, often don't make it.

"It's just crazy how many adoptable dogs are running the streets of Puerto Rico," Bird said, noting that many are the popular small, hypo-allergenic breeds.

FurKid Rescue and the Barks of Hope shelter in Rincón have worked together for the past couple of years to bring rescued dogs from Puerto Rico to Western Pennsylvania. FurKid puts the dogs in foster homes while it lines up adoptions.

On Monday, Bird and volunteers Ashley Fohl, Josh Knauer, and his 13-year-old son, Adam, flew down to Puerto Rico to help at Barks of Hope.

The group cleaned crates and stables. They went out into the community to rescue dogs. They found one abandoned at a gas station. They even helped rescue four potbellied pigs. If they can find foster homes for the pigs in Pittsburgh, they will fly them up here.

"We did a lot of dog walking and dog cuddling," Bird said. "So we got some of the perks."

They went into neighborhoods still without power, more than five months after the storm. The power went back on in one town while they were there.

"People were cheering," Knauer said.

All around them, generators hummed. Restaurants were open, and people tried hard to continue their lives.

Knauer was inspired by how well the Puerto Ricans had adapted to life without power, water and other essentials. But he was dismayed that Americans could be left to live in such conditions.

Bird had to fly home early to care for a sick dog she rescued from Puerto Rico months ago. The Brazilian mastiff is on the mend and expected to make a full recovery.

On Saturday, Knauer, his son and Fohl flew back to Pittsburgh. They landed with five dogs: Two Yorkies, one named Hattori Hanzoōafter a character in Kill Bill, which Jennifer was watching while in Puerto Rico, and another named Goliath, fitting for the small pup who survived a tough life on the street; a small terrier-mix and a Pomeranian-mix and her little puppy. The puppy was a fur ball of energy, bouncing along the airport carpet and trying to play with the other dogs, who were still adjusting to their new environment.

"You have to imagine how foreign this is for the dogs," Knauer said, holding one as they rode the train from one terminal to the other.

The dog was shaking. Maybe it was cold; it's in the 60s right now in Rincon. Maybe it was scared. Knauer said the dogs don't understand English and respond much better to Spanish.

Está bien, amiguito.

Some of the dogs bore the cuts, bruises and scratches of recent attacks. Hanzoōwent into shock after an attack. His body temperature started to drop. Bird grabbed Fohl's blow dryer to warm the pup up.

"I wasn't sure he was going to make it," Bird said. "He's had a really tough life."

But that's over.

More dogs are set to arrive Monday on a cargo flight, Bird said. FurKid Rescue has 18 more dogs — and the pigs — that they want to ship up to Pittsburgh if they can find foster homes. All the animals need adoptive homes, too.

You can volunteer to foster a dog or adopt one on FurKid's website, www.furkidrescue.org .

Aaron Aupperlee is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach him at aaupperlee@tribweb.com, 412-336-8448 or via Twitter @tinynotebook.

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