Over the past decade, as Christine Crawford has been developing her unique animal welfare model and rolling it out across Costa Rica, she has noticed some significant changes. For starters, these days, it’s rare to see a dog lying dead along the highway, and the dogs she encounters are generally much healthier than they used to be. At the same time, she’s seen a host of new veterinary clinics open up in almost every neighborhood of San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city — something she interprets as a clear sign of the growing value being placed on companion animals. But what really caught her attention was the recent arrival of upscale doggie boutiques and the introduction of canine couture.
“We went from a culture where people would kick and starve their animals to a place where you can now buy dresses for your dog in shops in San Jose,” says Crawford, who moved to Costa Rica from her native California in the mid-1990s. “Never in my life would I have thought it possible. It’s like night and day.”
Acknowledging these positive developments in Costa Rica is about as effusive as Crawford will get in describing the impact that the McKee Project (mckeeproject.org) — the animal welfare organization that she founded in honor of her “second” mother, Mary Ann McKee, in 1997 — has been having on the lives of animals. While legions of animal advocates are unflinching in their praise for what she and her dedicated staff are accomplishing, Crawford isn’t likely to view McKee as a success until every village in every country in Latin America and the Caribbean has its own well-trained vet with a long line of clients eager to have their dogs and cats spayed or neutered.
Crawford herself was just such an eager client in search of just such a well-trained (or even competent) vet when she first settled into life in San Jose and realized the deplorable conditions companion animals faced. From emaciated dogs hunting for scraps to abandoned pregnant females and newborn puppies tossed on the trash heap: she couldn’t escape the daily parade of misery. Her first response was to carry dog food with her at all times. Her second was to reach out to People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). PETA told her that the only sure way to improve the lives of animals was to stop the cycle of procreation. They sent her literature on spay/neuter and suggested she find a local vet who would help her launch a sterilization campaign.
Crawford followed that advice, scouring the city of some 4 million people for vets to enlist in her cause. She found just 10 who even treated small animals. (Because Costa Rica’s economy is primarily agricultural, most vets focus on large animals.) Of these 10, only five seemed competent, and even those five tended to approach a spay surgery as though it were a heart transplant. A typical incision ran the length of the animal’s rib cage all the way to the pelvic bone in a brutally invasive procedure that required an array of equipment, supplies and personnel, and took about 45 minutes to complete. Even worse, the trauma was so severe that mortality rates were shockingly high. The whole thing was barely tolerable for an individual animal, let alone a viable model for a large-scale campaign.
That’s when she first approached the Veterinary Licensing Board of Costa Rica and met its president, Dr. Yayo Vicente. A former official in the Ministries of Health and Agriculture who also ran his own veterinary clinic, Vicente is a pro at navigating the tricky waters of business and government bureaucracy. Most importantly, he shares Crawford’s vision of spay/neuter as key to improving the lives of animals. Soon enough, with the assistance of some of Crawford’s animal-welfare contacts in the United States, they were able to send a few Costa Rican vets north for advanced surgical training in high-volume spay/neuter techniques.