A ‘crazy gringo’s’ heroic crusade to save dozens of stray canines who had been poisoned, beaten, hacked with machetes and then dumped on Puerto Rico’s ‘Dead Dog Beach’, revealed in heartbreaking new book
- Stephen McGarva thought he would be kite-surfing in paradise when he and his wife moved to a town outside of San Juan
- What he found was a living hell of abused, dead and dying animals
- Feeding the dogs became Stephen’s daily ritual. He coaxed them out of hiding on the remote beach and gave them names
- He cleaned their wounds, stitched them up, bathed them in the Caribbean, held and trained them in the hope they would be adopted Stateside
- After two years and many threats from greedy hotel owners who believed the strays kept tourists away, he returned to the US and now tells his story
Stephen McGarva expected he was heading to an island paradise to indulge in extreme sports when he and his wife, Pamela moved from Rhode Island to just outside San Juan, Puerto Rico in the spring of 2005.
What he found was more like hell and a new mission in his life: rescuing stray dogs or satos as they are called, that roamed the beaches and streets of Puerto Rico. His pursuit almost cost him his life.
A picture-perfect postcard image of the Caribbean island’s terrain promised to fulfill his love of extreme sports while studying art.
Arriving at the beach in Playa Lucia to go kite-surfing, instead of a pristine beach, he found tons of strewn garbage along with bloodied and beaten dogs, dead or in varying states of emaciation and dying.
Considered a plague to the local tourism industry of casino hotels, dogs discarded here had been poisoned, hacked with machetes, burned to death, shot with guns or dropped off and run over.
Survivors suffered infected knife wounds and broken bones that had healed improperly. Others had charred and split skin after being doused with gasoline. All were starving to death.
Without a second thought, Stephen jumped in his truck and headed out to find food for them. Taking care of the stray dogs became his life’s work for the next two years.
'I knew deep in my heart that if I walked away, it would be a decision I'd regret the rest of my life', Stephen McGarva, 48, writes in his deeply-moving book, The Rescue at Dead Dog Beach, published by William Morrow on Tuesday, August 26, National Dog Day.
Looking out at the Caribbean Sea from the couple’s house at Humacao, a small town on the eastern coast of the island, the picturesque views belied the devastating truth of the island’s appalling poverty and high crime rate. Hidden to the undiscerning eye of tourists was the tragedy unfolding in Playa Lucia, which became known as Dead Dog Beach.
Instead of seeking out kite-surfing locations, feeding the dogs became Stephen’s daily ritual. He coaxed them out of hiding on the remote beach, befriended them and gave them names.
He cleaned their wounds, stitched them up, bathed them in the Caribbean, held them, loved them, trained them and prepared them for what he hoped would eventually be adoption into a home stateside - not in Puerto Rico where there was no respect for the abandoned animals
They became his pack and numbered up to one hundred. He was the uber-Dog Whisperer. He went to the beach every day to spend time with the dogs, and word quickly spread about ‘the dog guy’ or ‘the crazy gringo with 100 dogs’.
McGarva had no prior vet training but he was a certified EMT and had dogs of his own for years.
His devotion and love guided him in the care and rehabilitation of the bloodied, wounded and abandoned one-time pets and the couple were willing to spend a $1,000 a month on food and medical supplies that soon escalated to $3,000.
Burials became part of his daily routine when he’d arrive in the morning and go in search of missing pack members. Looking for his dogs, he uncovered new corpses with severely broken bones, bodies cut into pieces and stuffed into garbage bags or plastic buckets and poisoned dogs.
Every day there were newly dumped dogs and every day dogs disappeared.
'I buried at least one dog every day'. At the end of two years, he had buried twelve hundred dogs he had come to know and love.
The cruelty on the island and on the beach wasn’t limited to dogs. There were the remains of horses that had been blown open with bullets, legs tied together, dragged by a vehicle and dumped in this isolated spot.
'Any animal that had outlived its usefulness, even if solely due to a lack of proper care by its human owners, could end up at this remote beach, far from public scrutiny, as a victim'.
'If I hadn't witnessed the cruelty first hand, day after day, I wouldn't have believed human beings could be so heartless and cruel to other living creatures', he writes.
Locals came after him, threatened him with machetes and warned him to leave the beach… and the island. When he reported the threats to the police, they weren’t interested and instead told him that his life was in danger.
But Stephen couldn’t quit. The pack was now dependent on him for care and love. He had made a promise to himself that he would try to rescue all of them and get them off of Dead Dog Beach.
He was featured on the local news but that only inspired angry hotel owners to send out henchmen to threaten McGarva. They viewed the negative publicity he was generating as bad for business.
Attacks on the dogs escalated when McGarva didn’t bow to their intimidation. Instead, he resorted to carrying a machete, a billy club and mace.
He tried enlisting help of local stray organizations but they feared government reprisals and warned ‘the dog guy’ that the government and police meant business - they wanted to kill him.
'It became more and more obvious that I was in over my head. And my dogs were going to keep dying'.
McGarva should have seen the truth of this tropical ‘paradise’ when he and his wife first arrived. There were ‘emaciated dogs wandering the roads, and gaunt horses tied to the freeway guardrails.
'The animals barely reacted to the cars and trucks whizzing by at seventy miles an hour, less than five feet from them. Every so often we'd see a dog lying prone and lifeless by the side of the road. I saw a horse lying halfway across the slow lane of the freeway. Its legs were akimbo and its head was jammed up against the railing. Rigor mortis had set in', he writes.
This wasn’t paradise. This was an island riddled with extreme poverty, ‘a disenchanted island’, as described on National Public Radio, Morning Edition in 2013 in a four-part series on Puerto Rico exposing the ‘deteriorating economy, increased poverty and swelling crime rate’.
The rise in violence fueled by the drug trade prompted the U.S. Justice Department to investigate the island’s police department - but that wasn’t helping the dogs.
When a friend of Stephen’s visited from back home, they decided to go snorkeling and explore sea life in a crescent-shaped bay. They parked their car, grabbed their snorkeling gear and headed out in the warm water to the coral reefs on the sea floor, the sea turtles and manta rays.
Surfacing, there were men standing on the reef over them holding homemade tridents and spear guns.
'I had the foreboding feeling I'd had many times in the past, right before things went south'.
They tried to exit the water around the men, but they only reappeared in their way. Then the sharp poke in his lower back came and a harder poke on the back of his shorts. At every turn, the men were right there.
Stephen and his friend bolted out of the water and ran down the beach to collect their gear but it was gone. He had hidden the truck key under a rock and raced for the safety of the vehicle. Again they had been outmaneuvered.
The men had made a human roadblock. There was no way out other than to simply floor the truck straight at the men who were holding up their gear and laughing. ‘The human chain parted at the last second and we flew through the gap. Gobs of spit splattered the windshield’.
It was useless to pursue charges. The police weren’t interested.
There were always sketchy-looking people hanging out in the shadows of the now-abandoned boathouse on Dead Dog Beach.
I’d even seen police cars roll up and meet with the shady characters in the darkness of the dilapidated structure. I assumed the figures were drug dealers because I couldn’t fathom any other reason people would come to this derelict dead-end part of the world’.
An elderly local fisherman and his wife, Carlos and Dominga, warned Stephen: ‘There are people who come to this beach who could kill you if you get in their way and they won’t bat an eye at doing it’.
'You're not in the States anymore. You had better watch your back. You could go missing here and no one would even find you. It happens all the time'.
They warned him again weeks later. ‘There are men looking for you, asking a lot of questions: when you come to the beach, where you park, if you’re alone’.
One day he wandered too close to a hotel and was approached by employees wielding machetes. They warned him to leave but he said he was just looking for his dogs.
They pointed over there and told him the hotel wanted to make the beach more beautiful for visitors.
'They told us to kill any stray dogs on the beach and stop anyone from feeding them, including you'. Stephen asked them to just let him get his dogs so he could give them a proper burial.
Stephen was beginning to feel as alone as his dogs in his one-man fight to get them off the beach.
It was a culture that needed to change – from the people dumping them, the attitude towards dogs, the vets who wanted nothing to do with them, the politicians, businessmen who didn’t care.
With the help of a local vet, Sarah Paulson, they set up make-shift clinic and began sterilizing the dogs. Help was sporadically arriving from other women connected with animal protection agencies. Between them, they got thirty-two dogs off the beach and into shelters on the island or stateside.
Univision television did a story on McGarva, but that only inflamed the police and hotel owners who openly hated him.
Another warning came from the hotel gardener: ‘They want the dogs gone. They want you gone. Anybody who would do this to dogs will do it to you’.
Now he was finding his dogs hanging by the neck from a tree with a bedsheet for a noose.
Men came in a truck, corralled some of the dogs, poured gasoline on them and tossed a match. The ante was upped.
Stephen’s rage was consuming him. He added a Taser to his arsenal.
He had angered too many people by exposing the island’s problems. The dogs were being killed to intimidate him.
Something had to change and it came in the form of anaphylactic shock from an allergic reaction to drugs he was given to treat a toothache. He almost stopped breathing twice.
The couple went back to Rhode Island for a brief escape and on returning found their home vandalized. What wasn’t stolen was destroyed. A dozen men were waiting out behind the property in the tall grass with machetes.
Time had run out. They had to leave the island – now.
Saying goodbye to his dogs was the hardest thing Stephen had to face.
'I cried harder than I had in years and I had cried a lot in the two years we’d been in P.R.'
Stephen McGarva now lives in Boston with his wife and daughters and is pursuing a teaching degree from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University.
He is the founder of a nonprofit organization, Achates Legacy Rescue Foundation (AlRF) that works to end the abuse of strays and build animal friendly communities in Mexico and Puerto Rico.
To help out by donating, adopting a dog from Puerto Rico, or just to learn more, contact: Save a Sato in Puerto Rico.