updated 12/11/2007 10:08:48 PM ET 2007-12-12T03:08:48

Puerto Rican officials launched a campaign Tuesday to improve the treatment of animals after allegations of inhumane killings of cats and dogs drew international condemnation and led to millions of dollars in lost tourism.

The island will build new shelters and create animal protection units within every police department, said Terestella Gonzalez Denton, executive director of the island's tourism department.

"We want to tell the world that Puerto Rico is a civilized society," she said.

Dozens of pets were seized in October from housing projects and hurled from a bridge to their deaths. An investigation by The Associated Press later showed that such inhumane methods of killing pets and stray animals were routine, with thousands of animals brutally slain.

Hundreds of angry tourists have sent letters to Puerto Rican authorities, Gonzalez said, and more than 50,000 people from around the world have signed an online petition calling for justice for those responsible.

Millions of tourism dollars lost
Tourism officials estimate that Puerto Rico has lost more than $15 million as a result, an amount equivalent to about 5 percent of the island's average monthly tourism income. They worry more people will shun the island.

"We don't have exact figures of the current total loss, but we understand it could be even higher due to the widespread play of the news reports," Clarisa Jimenez, president of Puerto Rico's Association of Hotels and Tourism, said in a statement.

Last week, a judge charged the owner and two employees of the private company Animal Control Solutions with animal cruelty in the October pet massacre. Charges were also filed against the company. After the AP report was published, authorities said they would broaden their criminal investigation.

Wilma Rivera, the director of Puerto Rico's animal control agency, said Tuesday that she has at least $1.5 million available to help municipalities build shelters. More money is expected to come from grants and other sources, she said.

Puerto Rico's police chief has promised to train officers and establish animal protection units, Gonzalez said.

The only department currently offering such services is in Carolina, a suburb of San Juan. But Sgt. Carlos Davila said residents there are still surprised when officers investigate animal mistreatment.

"The hardest thing for them to understand is that (animals) have rights," he said.

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