Avacation to Puerto Rico turned into a mission for Finleyville resident Erica Lenzi.
Lenzi, 33, was appalled by the number of stray dogs wandering the streets of Puerto Rico when she visited in 2012.
A trip to Dead Dog Beach, a dumping ground for unwanted dogs – often flea-covered and infected with parasites – on the island’s southeast corner, “was devastating,” she said.
“I wanted to do something to help, but I wasn’t sure how to even get started,” said Lenzi.
She ran across an organization called Save A Sato, which cares for and finds adoptive homes in the United States for Puerto Rico’s abandoned “satos” – a slang term for street dogs – and began sending donations and supplies to the San Juan-based nonprofit rescue.
Then, two years ago, Lenzi flew back to Puerto Rico to volunteer at Save A Sato for a weekend. She cleaned crates, fed the dogs and let them out to exercise.
Before Hurricane Maria, an estimated 300,000 stray dogs roamed the island; at any given time, Save A Sato is home to as many as 150 dogs.
“It was an experience,” Lenzi recalled. “It was probably 110 degrees, there were cockroaches everywhere, and just the smell of dogs recuperating from skin infections and other health conditions was overwhelming.”
Lenzi didn’t return home empty-handed. She brought home two dogs, Chihuahua and terrier mixes that were adopted by a friend of hers.
It turned out to be the unofficial launch of her organization, Second Chance Sato, a partner shelter for Save A Sato.
In the past two years, Second Chance Sato has rescued 100 dogs from Puerto Rico and placed them in homes throughout Southwestern Pennsylvania.
For her efforts, Lenzi was selected for the Observer-Reporter’s ExtraORdinary People award, which recognizes residents who make a meaningful contribution.
“We thoroughly enjoy working with Erica,” said Dr. Kellie Frame of Fix Ur Pets in Canonsburg, where Lenzi takes her “satos” to get spayed and neutered. “She’s clearly an asset to the community, and someone who makes a positive impact, because of her commitment to the dogs she helps.”
Kari Shaffer of Swissvale adopted Marilou, a mixed-breed, from Second Chance Sato two years ago.
“The connection Marilou and I have developed is amazing. She is so affectionate and so loving,” said Shaffer of her dog, now about 4 years old. “Erica wants nothing more than to find homes for these dogs. To see how she was inspired on her trip and how she has put her time into saving these dogs is incredible.”
After the dogs are examined and treated by volunteers at Save A Sato, they are flown in cargo and commercial flights to Pittsburgh International Airport (usually, the flights arrive around midnight or 1 a.m.), where Lenzi picks them up and cares for the animals until she finds them a loving family.
Once the dogs arrive, Lenzi has them spayed and neutered, and she makes sure they are crate-trained and housebroken before they move into their new home.
“My responsibility, when they get here, is to make sure they’re healthy and ready to go to their new homes. Finding them a home hasn’t been a problem. I do as many meet-and-greets per dog as I can, just to find the perfect fit,” said Lenzi.
She has a waiting list of about 25 people.
Lenzi, who works as many as 60 hours a week at the family-owned Lenzi’s Service Station in Monongahela, dedicates most of her free time to Second Chance Sato.
“It’s time-consuming. My husband, my family and my husband’s family help a lot. Because I work for my family’s business, I alternate taking dogs to work with me every day to socialize them,” said Lenzi. “Customers love seeing the dogs, and our employees love seeing them. They get a lot of attention.”
Lenzi said she inherited her love for animals from her parents.
“I brought home so many stray cats,” said Lenzi, laughing. “My dad and I have been rescuing animals since I was little. And about 10 or 12 years ago, we rescued a Canada goose struck by a power line. We nursed it back to health and ended up finding a farm in Uniontown that took him. He had to have a wing removed, but he’s happy and healthy and still around.”
On her wrist, Lenzi has a tattoo bearing the name “Copper,” a dog she rescued locally in June 2015. The 18-year-old Pomeranian mix, a dog that was blind, deaf, malnourished and filled with cancerous tumors, had been left outside by its owner in sweltering heat with no food, shelter or water. She cared for Copper until the dog was euthanized three months later.
Lenzi also took in two dogs that were caught up in Thailand’s dog-meat trade.
But her focus now is satos.
After Hurricane Maria struck in September, Lenzi organized fundraisers to help rebuild Save A Sato, which suffered significant damage.
Save A Sato also took in several dogs that were left behind when their owners fled the island after the hurricane to find work.
“There are puppies everywhere now. And because the airlines had an embargo over cargo, there were people who were leaving the island but couldn’t take their pets. They were literally leaving them tied up on posts around the airport hoping the dogs would be picked up by a rescue shelter,” said Lenzi.
Shaffer marvels at Lenzi’s tireless efforts to place rescue dogs.
“The time, effort and finances she puts into finding homes for these dogs is remarkable,” said Shaffer.
Lenzi sends adoption fees to Save A Sato, and she often covers expenses for caring for the dogs, including veterinary costs.
“It’s really rewarding, finding homes for (the satos),” said Lenzi. “I get updates on every dog I adopt out, and it’s so great to see them doing well and being loved. Hopefully, I can keep it up for a long time.”
Editor’s note: As part of the ExtraORdinary People award, Erica Lenzi will be given $500, underwritten by the Observer-Reporter and Range Resources, to donate to the charity of her choice. She has chosen her nonprofit organization, Second Chance Sato.
For more information about Second Chance Sato, or to make a donation, visit Second Chance Sato's Facebook page.