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The feral dogs of Costa Rica

The feral dogs of Costa Rica

I did a portion of my dissertation research in the dry forests (as opposed to the more-famous rainforests) of Costa Rica.  I wasn't researching stray dogs, but I’m going to tell you about them anyway.

Costa Rica has a lot of stray dogs.  You could call it a stray dog “problem”--but that’s by privileged standards.  It’s somewhat low priority compared to the other larger and deadlier struggles.  For those of you who haven’t been to the non-touristy parts of Costa Rica, there’s some regions struggling with incredible poverty and non-existent access to healthcare.  

But I want to tell you about these amazing dogs.  They were common--not quite everywhere you looked, but one was never too far away.  They all had short fur in varying shades of brown and were between 30-45 pounds with slightly curled tails.  Thinner than the dogs most Americans are used to looking at, the street dogs in most cases were invariably filthy, mangy, and covered in fleas.  They had likely never been washed or brushed in their entire lives.

 This is a stock photo, but you get the idea.

This is a stock photo, but you get the idea.

They hung out near people, not roaming in packs as much as you might think.  As we were walking to and from our hut, occasionally a cur specimen would come trotting over to us, all smiles.  The ones that approached made startlingly intense eye contact.  We never gave them any food, although probably other people had in the past, which would explain why they were so gosh darn happy to see us all the time. 

One of the dogs in particular has stuck in my mind despite this whole experience having been nearly a decade ago.  The dog spent a few days following me around.  At the end of the day I would return to my hut, and the dog would plant his little butt on the ground.  He would wander off in the night, but at some point during the day we would encounter each other again and he would sidle up beside me with his happy dog face. 

One evening I was heading back to my hut with this dog trotting silently behind me.  Something rustled in the grass.  I alerted, although not dramatically (there are many poisonous snakes and other dangers to avoid--attention is good whereas panic is not so helpful).  But this dog looked at my face, then at the source of the sound.  Then back to my face.  On the second glance, the expression on his face struck me as clearly as though he had said it with words: “I’m going to kill that.”  I reached out to stop the dog, while using the pet owner vernacular “NONONONO”, which of course had no effect.  My specific fear was that the dog would kill and eat a Cane toad, which are invasive and common in Costa Rica.  They’re also poisonous, and are well-known for killing dogs both in Costa Rica and elsewhere.

 It's a coincidence that some poisonous snakes evolved angry eyebrows.

It's a coincidence that some poisonous snakes evolved angry eyebrows.

But after a short scuffle, the dog returned again happily.  I would swear he even had a little spring in his step.  Anthropomorphizing?  Maybe a tad.  But then again, what dog isn’t in a good mood after a fun chase?  As far as I know, the dog didn’t get sick and die that time.

When our time in Costa Rica ended, I said goodbye to the dog.  He had no idea what I was saying, of course.  I wished for years afterward that I had worked out how to take the darn dog with me back to the US.  At the time I was a graduate student living in a rented apartment, and had neither the time, money, or housing to accommodate a stray dog.  It’s for the best for me personally that I didn’t, but I can’t help but wonder what might have been.

If you would like to support these stray dogs in Costa Rica, check out this animal shelter/sanctuary that is home to 800 stray or unwanted dogs.  You can donate on their website or you can contact them about adopting one of their numbers.

What do you think?  Have you ever brought a stray home with you from outside your home country?  What challenges have you encountered with your rescue?

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