In the year 2000, I lived in Costa Rica for six months and fell in love with the dogs. There were many visitors to the farm during my stay there, and everyone knew about me and my love for Duque, who, like most dogs in Central America, didn’t really belong to anyone.
Dogs don’t last long in Costa Rica, particularly in the countryside, where, even if they are owned, they are allowed to run free, down the unpaved winding rock roads and into the villages, where they hang out on corners waiting for food. In Ciudad Colón, at the one restaurant in town, they would wander in and sit in groups around each table, or, if I was there, climb directly into my lap.Duque lived at the top of the hill, on the farm where I stayed in a small apartment, and he joined me every day for an afternoon nap and then returned each evening to guard my door. Sometimes we would play tug of war with a sock and then race one another up the damp, mossy, tiled road to the very top of the mountain.When it was time to leave, I made plans to take Duque with me, but the airline refused to transport animals, so I left him behind with a group of villagers who had made it clear that they thought he belonged with them.
I knew he wouldn’t be there when I returned, and that probably had something to do with the length of time it took me to go back.
When I finally did return six years later, I promised myself that I wouldn’t expect to see him running up the tiled drive, or burying dog biscuits beneath the bamboo outside my door. And I knew not to ask after him with any of the locals who might still remember me—I knew not to ask, because I didn’t want to know and because I didn’t want to reveal to them that I was still thinking about a dog that I had only known for a few months, six years ago. A lifetime, in dog years.
Within a few hours of my return, the truth was revealed: He had been shot and killed. I had rehearsed for this moment often enough and managed to just nod, as though I had already known. I didn’t ask when it had happened, but assumed it was sufficiently long ago that the emotion of the events had receded into history for the people who lived there. For me, all of this information was new.
“He bit someone,” one person said. “No, he bit a dog,” another suggested.
Duque was intact and sometimes got into trouble pursuing the female dogs in town. But when I’d known him, he was fed, and people played with him. There was no telling what had happened to him after I was gone.
Grief and guilt are necessary but often useless emotions. That is, unless they can be channeled into something more. I had returned to Costa Rica to relax and to write, but once again, Duque was leading me somewhere unexpected.
Among many other changes, the farm was now wired for Internet access, so I sat in my bed and began googling: “Costa Rica dog shelter,” “Costa Rica animal welfare,” and so forth. I found two listings within my range: an organization called the McKee Foundation, and the story of a woman named Patricia Artimana, who was running an animal shelter just outside of Ciudad Colón, the Asociation Arca de Noé. Earlier in the year, the municipality had intervened when neighbors complained about the barking of the more than 100 dogs who lived on her property.
In the news story, which was now several months old, Patricia said that if she could not find homes for the dogs, she would set them free again before she allowed the government to do anything with them. In my short time back, I had already noticed that there were far fewer dogs roaming the village. Now, I understood why.
I emailed the McKee Project and arranged to meet Carla Ferraro, the project’s program director, at the Multiplaza, one of the biggest shopping centers in Central America. The last time I had been to the Multiplaza, I had watched from the bus as motorists swerved to avoid a bull strolling casually down the middle of the eight lanes.
The locals were used to it—stray livestock on the highway is fairly common. The bull turned and wandered into the parking lot. It was Christmas, and I amused myself by imagining that he was doing some last-minute holiday shopping.
“We don’t believe in sheltering animals,” Carla said as we shared a pastry. There are too many, she said, and too few places for them to find homes. You end up with overcrowded shelters, and the problem of strays continues in the streets. The philosophy is that the cost of longterm care would be better spent neutering the stray populations.
“But I heard that there is a shelter. Somewhere near Ciudad Colón?” I asked. She seemed cautious in answering this query. “Yes, I know the woman you are talking about.” She paged through a copy of Pets y Más, a bilingual animal care magazine that is distributed throughout the country. “Here she is,” she said, pointing to a story.“And here is her phone number. It might be interesting for you to visit. She uses the dog waste to make methane.”
I thought perhaps I was mishearing something, but chose not to question it.
Carla continued explaining the McKee Project’s mission: They had been training vets across the country to perform spayand- neuter surgeries using a tiny incision. The surgery can be done in as little as 10 minutes, allowing one vet to alter dozens of animals in a single day. The animals’ recovery time is quick as well. After providing this free training, the project then encourages the vets to offer the surgery for free in their villages on a designated day each month. The training is made possible through the support of the North Shore Animal League and Spay USA.
“Some vets were reluctant at first,”Carla said. “But then they found that people who had never brought their pets in for treatment before came back again for other services. So it was good for business.”
As I listened, I once again wondered if I was misunderstanding something. If it was possible to spay and neuter animals so quickly, why had I never heard of the process before? When my own Sula was spayed, it required overnight observation and cost an arm and a leg.Why wouldn’t this new procedure be just as valuable in the U.S.? But these were not questions Carla could answer for me.
“So, you spay and neuter and then put them back on the streets?”
“Yes,” she answered, aware that this idea would seem truly foreign to me. Part of the problem is the definition of “stray.” Studies suggest that only 5 percent of the Costa Rican dog population is truly stray; the rest, though they have feeders, owners and places to stay at night, run free throughout the day. Only 25 percent are sterilized, all of which was accomplished in just the past six years. As Carla noted, “If we can get to 70 percent of the population, then we will have the overpopulation under control.” Previously, the government’s solution was to poison animals in the street. McKee has worked to make that practice illegal.
Carla’s manner was sharp and efficient. She didn’t let her emotions get in the way, even when I finally told her what it was that had inspired me to contact her—the story of Duque and the way he was killed.
I first met patricia artimana in a small bakery across from the church in Ciudad Colón. It was raining outside, the typical evening deluge of the rainy season, and we were sitting with a typical view of the typical town square. She told me about the municipality intervening earlier in the year,when she had had more than 100 dogs.“I had too many,” she said, and I wondered if she really believed that, or was simply repeating what she had been told.
“How many do you have now?”I asked. She thought for a while and then made a number using the fingers on her hands. Eighteen.
In the morning, a cabbie friend of hers arrived to drive me to her home: a mountain called Piedras Negras. On a map, it seemed to be just outside of town, but maps don’t take into account the steep terrain and the winding roads.More than an hour later, we arrived at her house. I had no idea where we were. And, of course, I had fantasies of finding Duque frolicking among the other dogs when we arrived. I knew that this wouldn’t happen, but I couldn’t expel the image from my mind.
Just a dozen or so dogs appeared immediately at the gate, yet I could see there were more.Patricia eventually joined them and began to awkwardly balance her two tasks: managing the dogs and showing me around. The property was set up using a series of corrals, with different groups of dogs in each area; some were allowed to run completely free.
At the top of the property was a stall with several horses; an ox; a flock of geese; and a small, indigenous tree animal hibernating in his coop who wouldn’t come out to see me. In order to get to the house, I needed to enter the corral, but the dogs weren’t going to let me. At each gate, the dogs would gather, jumping and barking at me, anticipating my visit. Finally she pointed to another entrance.“Would you mind coming through here?” she asked.
It was a dog door, but it appeared to be the only door in which the dogs had no interest. I ducked down and crawled through.
On the kitchen table, three dogs sat, wagging their tails. They were not small dogs—each weighed at least 40 or 50 pounds. On the stove, two large pots of dog food were being slow-cooked over a gas flame. A plastic tube ran from the back of the stove through the wall and across part of the lawn, to a plastic fermentation tent. She was, indeed, turning the dog poop into gas for the stove.
“How many dogs do you have?” I asked. She thought about it again.“Fifty-five.” Patricia wiped down the table and pulled out a chair for me to sit on.Then she went to the stove to make coffee. I scanned the shelves of an open cupboard, lined with various medicines and treatments that I assumed were for the dogs.While the coffee brewed, she introduced me to more dogs. They each had names, but it was more than I could do to keep up with them. A small brown dog made her way through the pack to greet Patricia, then settled at her feet, looking up at her with stubborn longing.
“Oh, Julie,” Patricia said. “Poor Julie.” She turned to me. “This is a special dog. This is a dog that I found myself. I kept an eye on her. Brought her food. Eventually she let me take her home.” Julie climbed into Patricia’s lap, and stayed there as the other dogs voiced their disapproval. Eventually, Patricia put her down again with the rest of the dogs.
Patricia continued to introduce me to the dogs, and my fantasy that Duque would appear there, miraculously alive, continued to dwindle.As we walked onto a patio area, a huge, longhaired, rust-colored dog bounded toward me and rose on his back legs to butt his chest—his brisket—against mine. He came back to me several times during my visit.“He likes you,” Patricia said.“Maybe you can take him home.”
I thought about what Carla had said —that sheltering dogs was a waste of resources, that it simply displaced the problem, while few animals actually found homes.
“Will any of these dogs be adopted?” I asked. Patricia shook her head no.
“They are too old. We have others that are young dogs that can find homes. They don’t stay here.”
A fewdays after my visit to piedras Negras, as I stood waiting for the bus, I spotted a woman sitting on the opposite corner in front of the new aquarium shop, with several dogs in crates on display. Arca de Noé was having an adoption fair.
I crossed the street and bent down to greet an awkward, brindle-striped puppy. He looked just like my Brando had, six years earlier, when I spotted him in the BARC shelter in Brooklyn in the weeks after leaving Duque behind.
“I have one just like this,” I told the woman.
And two days later, I was home.
Photographs courtesy Ken Foster