Between New Hampshire's Upper Valley and Puerto Rico, a Canine Connection

Sep 29, 2017

Tom and Andrea Heitzman with their first Puerto Rican rescue dog at their home in Lyme, NH.
Credit Britta Greene/NHPR

Here’s one thing you might not know about the Upper Valley: it's home to hundreds of Puerto Rican dogs. 

That’s because of the relationship between one New Hampshire family and a shelter on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico’s eastern shore. 

It all started about five years ago, when Lyme resident Andrea Heitzman was visiting the island and spotted a small black dog on the street. He was a street dog, homeless. She immediately fell in love.

“That night, I went home and couldn’t stop thinking about him,” she said. “The next morning, I woke up at 5 o’clock and started wandering all over town looking for him.”

She asked at the local bar, at the ferry dock, and finally, she found him. She fed him, and ultimately took him home to Lyme. The following year, while on Vieques again, she met a woman named Aleida Tolentino. Tolentino runs an animal shelter there.

Ever since, the two have been working together closely. Heitzman has returned frequently, helping to fix up the shelter’s structure and grounds. She says her relationship with Tolentino and the staff in Vieques has become one of the most important parts of her life. “It really is like being part of a family,” she said.

Heitzman’s husband, Tom, is a veterinarian in the Upper Valley. Together, they estimate they’ve helped find homes for about 250 Puerto Rican rescue dogs in the area. Andrea goes and picks up the animals herself at Logan Airport. Tom treats them before they're adopted. 

But now, Andrea said everything seems up in the air. The last time she talked with Tolentino was just before the storm. She says Tolentino sent her a few lines by text message. “Everything’s closed up and shut down,” she wrote. “I’m scared.”

Andrea said she’s heard from other contacts that Tolentino and the animals are “Ok,” but she’s not sure exactly what that means. Unable to travel to Puerto Rico herself, she’s been channeling her energy in other directions. She said she's helped raise nearly $40,000 through PayPal donations since the storm, and there are more checks coming in.