It’s a rare dog who wears a collar in the town of Pavones, located along the southern Pacific coast of Costa Rica. The ones who do obviously have owners, though most of the time, pinpointing who it is can be challenging. Some of the dogs here act like free agents, nosing around restaurants for handouts, finding some shade under a coconut tree or trotting down the beach to where the Rio Claro runs into Golfo Dulce for a drink of fresh water and a swim. Spaying and neutering dogs is a common practice but is not a priority for many dog owners. Surprisingly, I’ve seen fewer scuffles here than in most dog parks—a reminder that it’s not always a dog’s testicles that are the problem; more often, it’s the lack of space dogs have to roam and explore.
A group of dogs regularly skulks around the compost pile at my rented house. I’m not sure where these dogs live, since most houses are separated by grazing fields or swaths of jungle. They show up either just after sunrise or an hour before sunset. The neighborhood pack consists of three unneutered males and a female, all mutts, though traces of Labrador and Collie are evident, and one definitely has a bit of Corgi in his background.
They are lean, wary and knowledgeable about coconuts. Coconuts—or pipas, as they’re called here in Costa Rica—are a favorite among humans and dogs. Once a pipa has been broken open, dogs love the coconut flesh as much as people do. It’s not uncommon to see one of these neighborhood dogs trotting through the back fields with half of a pipa in her mouth.
Pavones is the tropical equivalent of the Maine backwoods. Everything is partially feral, and that’s the way people prefer it. I walk down the dirt road, past the fishing boats beached on the sand and the horses dozing in the shade of coconut trees, to the town’s square. Across from the soccer field, in front of Café de la Suerte, appearing homeless and forlorn as he sniffs through the scrub grass, is Julio.
The outline of his hipbones and ribs ripples underneath his black-and-tan coat, and he has scars on his ears and legs from past adventures or tussles. But he’s not timid about coming over to me for a belly rub and nosing at my purse (I sometimes have a bag of potato chips that I don’t mind sharing). He’s not homeless and neither is he starving. From what I’ve heard on the beach, he’s well fed. What he could benefit from is a rest from his relentless hunt for in-heat females and possibly a dose of deworming medicine.
A Labrador trots past us and jumps over the seawall with a stick clenched between her teeth. She has a robust figure, and golden highlights shine in her rich chocolate coat. She patrols the beach almost daily, on the lookout for someone to play fetch with her. A young surfer obliges, flinging the stick into the crashing surf. The dog doesn’t hesitate to throw herself into the powerful break. I asked after the dog’s owner. The surfer replied, “I don’t know, chica. My friend is taking care of the dog. The owner’s out of the country, and from what I hear he’s fearless too.” The Lab trots up to us and places the stick at my feet. She’s decided it’s my turn to play.
Farther down, where the beach meets the mouth of the Rio Claro, two dogs play chase. According to their part-time owner, a French woman who resides in Pavones half the year, they are brothers. The woman explains that her neighbor takes care of them when she’s out of the country. “The other brother is off somewhere. I’m not sure where the mother and father are.” She assures me that they’ll show up after sunset.
None of them are late for dinner. She seems secure in the knowledge that the dogs can look after themselves.
Not all the dogs living in Pavones have this much freedom. Some are watchdogs for their owners’ properties and go for attended walks along the miles of beach. But their playground of sand and surf is 24/7, and in every season, they are off-leash, a luxury of rural living.
It would be easy to idealize life in southern Costa Rica but there are risks here, too. Dogs and people live close to nature, which means there are more inherent dangers: snakes, scorpions, extreme weather. There’s also a distinct wild side to these dogs. In January, on the blood moon, a pack of dogs killed a lamb in the field outside my back door. The following night, dogs chased a cat onto the patio, trapping it under a chair. My yelling stopped the hunt and the dogs scattered; later, the cat skulked away into the shadows. I had to assume the dogs who formed these late-night hunting parties were the same ones I gave scraps and belly rubs to during the day. My neighborhood pack skirted through my backyard the next afternoon, but their wagging tails didn’t betray the killer instincts of previous nights.
In the golden hour of sunset, the beach is the destination for most residents of Pavones: Families enjoy the gentle shore break. Surfers paddle out for one last wave. Dog owners relax by the coconut trees, admiring the sky as the suns melts it into a deep orange. A few dogs explore the driftwood left by the last high tide, others romp in the white water. Two of these dogs I know, Shanti and Panda. They race toward me, one chasing the other in competition for the stick. There’s no mistaking the wild joy in their eyes—the pleasure of freedom.