Two migrants aboard a rough-hewn Cuban sailboat that made landfall early Oct. 29 in Islamorada were left off the passenger list written by U.S. Customs and Border Protection.
Instead, the two were turned over to another agency — Monroe County's Key Largo Animal Shelter.
"They're sweet dogs," said animal control officer Lauren McKnight, who picked them up at Cheeca Lodge and Resort, where the sailboat grounded in the early morning.
Federal and local law enforcement were keeping watch over a dozen men and two women who said they left the northern coastal town of Caibarien five days previously.
McKnight was directed to the 13th male migrant, who "was sitting there with two dogs," she said.
"We've received Cuban dogs before but the last one, a chihuahua, was several years ago," shelter director Marsha Garrettson said. "It's not something we expect."
Both of the mixed-breed arrivals, a male and female weighing 30 to 40 pounds, showed the effects of the long trip on a crowded boat.
"When they got here, they attacked their food," Garrettson said. "They were ravenous." Also dirty, scared and exhausted.
The male had suffered an open facial cut that required immediate treatment. "He also had tar sticking to his feet. We don't know if those injuries happened aboard the boat or before," Garrettson said.
The names of the dogs, each estimated to be at least a year old, were not known due to the brief time McKnight spent with the owner. Through an interpreter, McKnight asked the migrant if he intended to reclaim them, or let them be adopted out.
"He said if he didn't want them, he would have left them" in Cuba, McKnight recounted.
McKnight understood. "If you have an animal, it seems you should take it wherever you go," she said.
Garrettson offered a mild dissent. "It's one thing to decide to risk your own life" on a dangerous crossing of the Florida Straits, she said. "Why risk other lives? It's not like the dogs had a choice."
Shannon Kuner, McKnight and other Humane Animal Care Coalition shelter staff bathed the dogs and started a regimen of vaccinations while watching for signs of any medical problems.
The dogs, still shy but improving, are expected to remain in quarantine for at least 30 days.