Dogs in some countries don’t know how good they have it.  They get treats for sitting down, sleep all day, then get taken for evening runs on the beach. It’s often made me wish that I could be a dog in my next life. But if I knew I’d come back as a dog in Latin America, I’d probably retract my request.

Dogs in many parts of Latin America are an afterthought, a disposable item. Once the family is fed, the next priority is the livestock: the money-making, food-providing cows and chickens. Dogs are fed leftovers (or worse), run wild, and if they get sick or are injured, wait in pain for the end.

"Dogs live on the street, eat out of the garbage or beg for food in local restaurants. The restaurant owners in the city of Jaco will buy old meat and fill it with poison. They then scatter it around for the strays," explains Carie Garris, a dog activist from Hermosa, Costa Rica. "Dogs that are owned are often tied outside the home or fenced in a small cage only to be let off at night to protect the property. They are not allowed in the homes. I have also seen stray dogs kicked or run over by cars and no one seems to do a thing about it."

Luckily, there are some people who can’t turn their backs on the plight of the dogs. Garris has dug deep into her pockets and made it her quest to help the dogs in her neighbourhood. "It is a shame that in a country that prides itself on its environmentally friendly atmosphere, where tourism is based on nature and wildlife, dogs are so poorly cared for and so poorly treated. I would like the zaguate [cur] to be seen. It is similar to looking away when a beggar walks up to your window; it is easier to not look. I would like people to look and see what a sad state the dogs of Costa Rica are in."

Preventing overpopulation and finding loving homes for dogs are Garris’s top priorities. "I have found homes for around ten puppies. Five have homes locally in Hermosa and the other five went back to the U.S. with tourists who fell in love with the dogs. I have fixed six female and two male dogs that lived on the beach. The females were more important since they were getting pregnant."

Garris is not alone in her efforts. The McKee Project in Jaco consists of four committed people who provide health care to stray dogs and to dogs owned by poor families in the region. "We are a non-profit organization for the humane control of cat and dog overpopulation in Latin America," says Katja Bader, a McKee Project representative. "We offer all kinds of services to owners, such as spaying/neutering, treating sick pets, care-taking during vacations, financial assistance for vets and chow, as well as free transportation to and from the vet."

To pay for the services both Garris and Bader use their own money, but tourists are starting to help out. "The residents and the local businesses are not as involved as I expected they would be. We collect donations, but mostly from tourists," says Bader, who owns five cats and three dogs. "Since December we have also been running a pool bar at the Los Suenos Marriott Beach Club, and as we all volunteer, all profits go to our project."

It’s a step in the right direction but still more needs to be done. And as with many social issues, it’s mainly about teaching people to be responsible. "Education, especially for kids, is crucial to help change the current situation. We need to go to the schools and teach children about their responsibility for pets. It will take some time, but I am sure this will help a lot," says Bader.

"People also need to be educated to spay or neuter their animals. Then they need to be offered low-cost spay and neuter programs, like the one that the McKee Project is starting. We also need to build animal shelters for the stray dogs that do not have homes," adds Garris, who has nine dogs of her own, including six zaguates.

Garris and Bader are making a difference in the lives of dogs in Costa Rica. In a mere two months the McKee Project has already spayed and neutered 50 animals and helped another 50 receive vet care or find homes.

"I never thought of it as a responsibility," says Garris. "I just felt like I had the means to do it. I had a car to take them to the vet and I could afford to put a few extra dollars towards helping the dogs. It just seemed like the right thing
to do." ■

Sarah Murray is a freelance writer living in Vancouver. She is an apartment dweller and can have no dog. But she has a kitty who loves dogs better than cats, and who (sometimes) comes when she’s called.