Visitors to the Caribbean islands see the strays — skinny, scruffy dogs that wander the streets scavenging for food.
They’re called potcakes, named for the traditional rice and pea mixture that gets caked on the bottom of the pot when it’s cooked. It’s a staple in island homes, and gets scraped off to be fed to street dogs scrambling for scraps.
Although it might look as if nobody is caring for these homeless dogs, there are several charitable organizations which take them in, feed, spay and neuter as many as possible with limited funding, and provide health care and vaccinations. Once the dogs are healthy, these organizations provide adoptions for them, sending thousands every year to Canada, the U.S. and Europe.
Some arrange adoptions directly, and others will ship dogs to shelters in cities far away, hoping they will find forever homes.
Charlie is one of the fortunate potcakes who found a loving home in Niagara-on-the-Lake. Adopted by Julia Buxton Cox and Dave Cox as a puppy almost two years ago, the three instantly became a family.
The couple have had other dogs in the past — loving, loyal shepherd/labs, also rescues, who have been great pets, says Julia. They waited almost two years after they lost their last dog to cancer, and then, when they were ready to start thinking about bringing another dog into their home, began looking at rescue agencies from Niagara to Toronto, and even the U.S.
They knew they wanted a puppy, male, medium-sized, and one that didn’t shed a lot, but didn’t have any luck finding what they were looking for.
One day, driving home along Niagara Stone Road, they saw a dog adoption event at Pet Valu, and quickly turned around to see what was going on.
There, they learned about potcakes, brought to Niagara by the St. Lucia Animal Protection Society for adoption.
The one the local couple fell for, they discovered, had already been adopted, but that sent Julia looking for potcakes, and led her to HelpAWS, another St. Lucia organization but one that arranges adoptions directly.
Two days after filling out an online application, she heard from Charlene Penney, the Canadian founder of the rescue organization, and it wasn’t long before she and Dave were ready to welcome Charlie into their home.
Julia has a video she loves to watch of her Charlie as a three-week old puppy, one of eight siblings being rescued. The puppies’ mother had died of poisoning, and they were running around on a St. Lucia street, being fed by a woman who had found them and called Penney to rescue them. Six of the eight were found homes in Canada.
It’s easy to see why Julia and Dave fell in love with him, quickly opening their hearts and their home. On the video he is tiny and adorable, as are his siblings. He’s also active, playful, yet determined to get his share when there was food offered. And he has the deep, soulful eyes that are so common to potcakes, and so irresistible.
They would receive more videos and photos of Charlie before they were able to pick him up at Pearson Airport in Toronto, all showing evidence of the deep commitment of Penney toward her puppies, and how well-cared for and loved they are.
Charlie was originally called Nacho — Julia jokes that when they saw him they told him, “nocho name any more,” and he has been Charlie ever since. He was shipped in a crate with his brother Taco, where the Coxes were able to pick him up in the cargo area of the airport.
“It was Remembrance Day, and a day we’ll never forget,” says Julia.
“I cried when I saw him. And we felt such an instant recognition, an instant connection. I’d say it was a perfect match.”
There are characteristics of potcakes, evolved from generations of street dogs, that make them unlike other breeds, says Dave. They have an extra wariness of other animals and strangers, but once they’re comfortable, they are loving, friendly, loyal and lots of fun, he says — they have big personalities for medium-sized dogs.
They also have a distinct look, with the short, smooth coat, pointed nose, slim bodies often curved like a whippet, and long, thin legs.
In the winter, Charlie needs a thick, winter coat to wear outside, one Julia had to sew to make it snug enough to keep him warm. He doesn’t like the cold, and loves to snuggle in front of a fire, she says.
Potcakes love to play, with people and other dogs, but they will always choose sticks over other toys. And they love dirt — they like nothing better than to scratch a hole and curl up in it.
When the Coxes were having their backyard pool installed this summer, Charlie was in heaven playing in the dirt, says Dave.
Another distinctive characteristic they have noticed is the affection potcakes show when meeting other dogs with the same background. There are other potcakes in their neighbourhood, and they recognize each other when out for a walk, Dave says. “They roll around on the ground and play with each other, differently than they would play with other dogs. They’re more tentative with other dogs.”
On a Facebook page for those who have adopted potcakes, with thousands of photos, others have also noted similarities, including the way potcakes use their paws almost as hands, reinforcing that while not officially recognized as a breed, they are a breed unto themselves.
Those adopted from HelpAWS are beautifully socialized, even house-trained, when they arrive in Canada, says Julia. “Charlene has such a big heart. She really cares about her dogs. I don’t think you could find a better organization than hers.”
When Penney first visited the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, she loved everything about it — except the huge number of stray dogs she saw, underfed, unloved, and crying out for a great deal of care. Her husband is from St. Lucia, and she first visited the island with him in 2010.
“I saw the sheer number of animals on the street. I saw them getting hit by cars, and dying on the street,” she says. An animal lover by nature, it broke her heart to see them roaming the street, with nobody to care about their safety or welfare.
Determined to do something to help, when she returned to Canada, she went back to school to earn a post-graduate business degree in non-profit management, and also took courses in animal welfare, working in a veterinarian clinic for four years.
Her plan was to get back to the island to live, and to save as many of the strays as she could. It took her four years, but she did it.
“I started to rescue them, and somehow, they found me. I didn’t have to go looking for them,” said Penney, who founded HelpAWS (Help Animal Welfare St. Lucia), which has become an international non-profit operating in three countries, with a staff of six, and a large group of volunteers.
Four of the staff members are St. Lucia locals, two of whom spend their days cooking for the rescued puppies, cleaning and caring for them, and two who look after, cook for and feed the street dogs.
Penney turned the house she was living in into a makeshift shelter where she could care for the dogs, restore them to health, have them spayed or neutered, and find homes for them.
The numbers continued to overwhelm her, and she says she feels no matter how many puppies she coaxes back to health and finds homes for, it is never enough.
Eventually she moved out to make room for more dogs — it has become a safe haven for up to 100 puppies at a time in her care.
She tried adopting them out to locals on the island, but too many, after having so much loving care and money invested in their health, ended up dying because the level of care she was providing didn’t continue. They would be allowed on the street and be hit by cars, or their medications and vaccinations would lapse and they’d be re-infected.
“They are my babies. I want to make sure they’re taken care of. I can’t send them to shelters — I’m super controlling, and I want to know where they’re going. I want to be able to follow up on them, if there are any issues. I need to know they’re going to a good home.”
The answer, she decided, was to find safe, permanent homes for them in other countries, where healthy puppies are valued and readily adopted.
She is now raising money for a permanent, purpose-built shelter in St. Lucia, she says. She has raised $72,000 toward a goal of $125,000, and is hoping to have a pre-fabricated building up and finished as a suitable shelter by next year.
The word is out in Canada, and in Niagara-on-the-Lake, that potcakes make great pets, but the problem is getting them here.
Penney says she sends the puppies on Air Canada flights, but in the summer, with fewer tourists travelling to the warm Caribbean islands, the airline cuts back its flights to about half the winter schedule, and the number of dogs at HelpAWS increases. It will continue until the number of flights increases in the fall, she said.
She has been able to send out about 200 to 250 puppies a year, and she’s now at 175 for this year, she says. But with the growing attention on potcakes and their popularity, once Air Canada increases its flights, she expects to triple that number.
There in no shortage of testimonials on Penney’s website from those who have adopted her beloved potcakes, praising the organization, staff and volunteers, and for the dogs themselves, who become loyal, loving, healthy, low-shedding cherished family members.
Julia says she was a little nervous about e-transfering a sizeable amount of money so far away, but she had a really good feeling after several conversations with Penney, and now she can’t say enough about the organization.
The cost of adoption is $600, and transportation about $300. The puppies arrive vaccinated, neutered and healthy — her NOTL vet was impressed with Charlie’s health, and the records that were sent of his vaccinations, says Julia, adding she trusts HelpAWS completely.
Lauren Crickmore is another local with a potcake from HelpAWs. She says she is thankful to Penney and her team at HelpAWS for rescuing Bandit, the four-month-old puppy she and her husband Daniel Corvino adopted. Originally named Noah, Bandit, Lauren says in her online testimonial, “has made our lives so much better, and the entire process with HelpAWS was wonderful. They clearly care so much about all of the animals that they are helping. We wish we could bring many more of the animals that they rescue into our home.”
Corvino says adopting their puppy from St. Lucia “was one of the best decisions we’ve ever made.”
Having recently returned from travelling,“we saw first-hand the desperate conditions many dogs live in, and the opportunity to help was something we really wanted to do,” he says.
“The first day Bandit came into our home he was nothing but a ball of love, immediately crawling into our laps, and he has grown into an oversized lap dog.”
As a street dog who never knew where his next meal was coming from, he was very “food-focused,” says Corvino, “but over time he’s learned that meals are steady and no longer devours his dinner in less than 30 seconds.”
Knowing the street life that could have been Bandit’s destiny, and the loving puppy he has become, says Corvino, “adds an extra level to the relationship we have with our dog.”
Carol Thibault, owner of Pet Valu in Virgil, has helped with local adoptions of potcakes carried out here in Niagara. She has worked with the St. Lucia Animal Protection Society (S.L.A.P.S.), which brings dogs to Canada for adoption.
Thibault says she’s helped find homes for puppies and young adults, and has found them to be very sweet-tempered, and a little shy at first.
“They’re not boisterous, and they all have a certain way of looking at you. You see things in their eyes, and you know you are saving their lives.”
Before they’re ready for adoption, they must be vaccinated, healthy, and spayed or neutered, she says.
“We have worked with Vanessa (Deline) and her group (S.L.A.P.S.), and you can see they are people who love dogs, and who want to find them good homes.”
For more information, visit helpaws.com or Helpaws on Facebook.
Or visit The St. Lucia Animal Protection Society at www.stluciaanimals.org.