CORVALLIS — Four-year-old Gustavo wagged his tail eagerly inside the gate of a large backyard in southwest Corvallis.
The corgi-German shepherd mix is a native of Puerto Rico and rode out Hurricane Maria late last month inside a boarding kennel on the island. Ten days after the storm hit, devastating the Caribbean island, the pup was reunited with his family in the United States.
“He’s survivor dog,” said Holly Bakker, whose family adopted Gustavo — “Gus” for short — in Puerto Rico.
The Bakker family is from Corvallis. Holly graduated from Crescent Valley High School and her husband, Chris, is a graduate of West Albany. They’ve been living in Isabela, Puerto Rico, on the island’s northwest side, since 2015 with their daughters, Ally, 11, and Izzy, 9. Chris works for Hewlett Packard and had been asked to manage a team in Puerto Rico, his wife said.
The group had departed the island on Sept. 15 for a business trip to San Diego. They’d already endured Hurricane Irma and had boarded their home in preparation for that tropical storm. The palm trees on their property sustained damage, but their house was unharmed.
Before leaving the island, the Bakkers dropped Gus at the kennel, where they planned to pick him up two weeks later. But, on Sept. 20, Maria made landfall on the southeastern part of the island. The family was in California.
“We were just kind of watching it unfold from afar and felt so helpless,” Holly said. “There was nothing we could do.”
Two days after the hurricane made landfall, Holly connected with a kennel employee using WhatsApp, an online messaging service.
“She said they were asking everyone to come get their dogs, but there was no way we could get back to the island,” she said.
The 25-year-old employee promised Holly she would visit the kennel every day, even if Gus was the last dog there. But then Holly went a couple of days without hearing from the woman. Finally she called and told Holly how bad things were on the island. Clean water was limited. Fuel was hard to come by. The woman said she would fill up containers with water to have some reserved for the dog.
Holly sprang into action. Through a friend in a Bible study group, she heard about a Spirit Airlines humanitarian flight. She sent emails and Facebook messages to the family of a girl her daughter, Izzy, had gone to school with in Puerto Rico. Holly gave them the details for the flight and asked that they go to the shelter to retrieve Gus and take him on the plane with them. She told them to bring a duffel bag to put the medium-sized dog into.
The duffel bag was too small for Gus, but otherwise the plan went off without a hitch. The family was able to use a generator to read the emails. Spirit Airlines had said no pets were allowed on the flight, but the airline was “very generous,” Holly said.
“We heard from people on the flight that there were so many animals on there,” she said.
The flight landed in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and the family Holly helped is now settled in Wisconsin. The Bakkers flew from Portland to Florida, where they rented a van to drive Gus to Corvallis.
“He was great,” Holly said. “He was a good little traveler.”
The family spent five days driving across the country and arrived in Oregon last week. A lot of people asked the Bakkers where they were from. The waitresses at one hotel in Salt Lake City, Utah, offered to buy the family’s lunch and asked to meet the “survivor dog.”
“People are really good,” Holly said. “That’s kind of what we discovered as we were driving along.”The Bakkers adopted Gus shortly after moving to Puerto Rico. He was a stray dog, and the family had seen him hunt iguanas for food. One night, while Chris was away on business, Holly talked to the dog as he sat outside the front door. She told him she was nervous about being alone and asked him to stay. The next morning, he was still at the front door.
“So when my husband came home I said, ‘I want this dog. I want him to be our dog,’” Holly said.
She received a picture of her family’s house from their neighbors. Though it’s surrounded by destruction, the structure is intact. There’s likely water damage inside, she said. For now, the Bakkers plan to stay with family in Corvallis. It could be months before the power grid is restored in Puerto Rico.
“It’s not safe to go back ...” Holly said. “Everybody that’s there locally on the ground, anybody that we have talked to, has said ‘You guys, don’t come back.’”