by Merritt Clifton
SAN JOSE, Costa Rica–Gerardo Vicente, DVM, policy advisor to the Costa Rican Veterinary Licensing Board and former board president, shocked even unconventional thinkers at the No Kill Conference in Tucson 18 months ago when he explained that Costa Rica has no animal control shelters and does not want or need any.
But Vicente made a point that was hard to deny: shelters take a lot of money to build and run. Even the U.S., spending $2 billion a year on animal sheltering, between public and nonprofit investment, does not yet have complete shelter coverage of every community. After more than a century of energetic shelter-building, half of the rural counties in the U.S. still have no shelter, public or private–but shelter-building proved to be an ineffective response anyway to the problems associated with homeless dogs and cats.
Enough shelter space can never be built to contain every dog and cat without a home, so long as dogs and cats breed freely. Nor is it possible to lastingly reduce dog and cat overpopulation by killing the surplus. No matter how many dogs and cats are killed, the fertile remainder can always breed rapidly up to the carrying capacity of the habitat, somewhere between becoming a public nuisance and suffering starvation.
Developing nations, Vicente emphasized, cannot afford to repeat rich nations’ mistakes.
Besides, he said, Costa Ricans love their animals. They do not wish to have so many that stray dogs and cats spread disease or harm wildlife, but they do not wish to slaughter them, either.
Animal control shelters will always be slaughterhouses, Vicente said bluntly, if dog and cat reproduction is not controlled before the shelters are built. If the population is controlled, the role of animal control shelters in housing the relatively few animals who require quarantine or special care could be done as efficiently by shelterless nonprofit humane societies.
Since then, Vicente’s “no-kill, no shelter” concept has proved an attractive theme to the Ticos, as Costa Ricans call themselves. Indeed, it echoes the national motto: ¡Pura vida!, meaning “Pure life!”
About 60 veterinarians participate in the McKee Project, the largest of the many “No-kill, no shelter” sterilization programs in Costa Rica, founded in 1998 by American expatriate Christine Crawford with the help of then-Veterinary Licensing Board president Alexander Valverde, DVM.
The most unique aspect of the McKee Project is that–at Valverde’s suggestion–it loans U.S.-built anesthesia machines to Costa Rican veterinary clinics on a semi-permanent basis, in exchange for the clinics doing a specified volume of low-cost or free dog or cat sterilization surgery.
The incentive works, the anesthesia machines make high-volume sterilization surgery faster and safer, and Crawford says the biggest problem with the program is that it could easily deploy twice as many of the $4,000 machines than the 10 it already has, if it could afford to buy more.
Vicente succeeded Valverde at the Veterinary Licensing Board in February 2000, after Valverde took a teach ing post at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada. Vicente gave the McKee Project added status by creating the McKee Commission within the Licensing Board to help run it.
There are many other “No-kill, no shelter” projects in Costa Rica. Some, like the outreach clinics hosted by the Asociacion Nacional Protectora de Animales, are much older.
The significance of McKee, Vicente explained, is that it arrived at the right time to form a coordinating umbrella for all the projects, with no pre-existing political alignment and the opportunity–since McKee is incorporated with nonprofit status in the U.S.–to reach beyond Costa Rica.
The concept of Costa Rica as bridge between the developed and underdeveloped worlds and the expression “¡Pura vida!” were prominent when Vicente’s introduced me to Costa Rica on October 23, 2001 on the short drive from the national airport at Alejuela to the San Jose hotel that was to host the biennial conference of the National College of Veterinarians. The conference included, as a subsection, the first animal welfare conference held anywhere in Central America.
Costa Rica is in fact a geological and cultural bridge, everywhere green and in motion with the wildlife and cultures of both North and South America. Manuel San Antonio National Park on the Pacific Coast marks the point where the land bridge between the Americas first closed, separating the sea life of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, but enabling armadillos and opossums to come into the habitat now occupied by the U.S., while coyotes, bears, and pumas followed the volcanic mountain chain that forms the backbone of Central America down into the Andes.
Costa Rica is among the smallest nations of the western hemisphere, about the size of New Hampshire and Vermont combined, yet few species native to either North or South America lack Costa Rican cousins. Nowhere else in the Americas is visited by more kinds of bird–which has made birdwatching a mainstay of the national economy.
Biodiversity and ethnic diversity perhaps have inspired Costa Ricans to celebrate being different. Ticos pride themselves in having a long history of turning conventional thinking inside out, finding gentler ways to succeed where others struggle, often failing, with a more aggressive approach.
As the first republic to grow bananas for export, Costa Rica could be called the first banana republic. Yet Costa Rica has avoided stereotypical banana republic instability. There was no initial conquest and repression of the native peoples by the Spaniards because most of Costa Rica was uninhabited when they came. The current indigenous population of about 5,000 is believed to be about as large as it ever was. In 1819, when Simon Bolivar fought a bloody war to free the territory now occupied by Colombia, Ecuador, Venezuela, and Panama from Spain, Costa Rica only watched, and stayed out of the aftermath, too, as 11 years of ensuing civil war split the newly independent nation into four.
The Ticos won independence by diplomatic means in 1821, and cut loose from adjacent northern territories, freed at the same time, when their governors showed signs of dictatorial ambition.
During the next 128 years Costa Rica was occasionally drawn into regional skirmishes, but banana republic insurrections broke out just twice in the 20th century, in 1917-1919 and in 1948. After the 1948 coup attempt, Social Democratic Party president Jose Ferrer convinced fellow Ticos to constitutionally abolish the Costa Rican armed forces. That way, the army could neither orchestrate a coup nor be used to crush dissent.
Costa Rica has thrived without a military since 1949, achieving the highest standard of living of any Latin American nation, and a literacy rate equal to that of the U.S. A mutual aid pact with the U.S. has apparently prevented full-scale armed invasions by jealous or acquisitive neighbors, while the crocodiles of Lake Nicaragua and the Rio San Juan may have given Sandanista guerillas second thoughts about possibly entering Costa Rica to hide out during the Nicaraguan civil war of 1978-1989.
Vicente outlined all of this in a rush, as a necessary prelude, he said, to what I was about to observe. The conference would be heavily attended by veterinarians and veterinary students. Vicente would be just one of several Costa Rican veterinary speakers with unusual perspectives.
Co-hosted by the McKee Project, the conference brought together representatives from most of the animal protection groups active in Costa Rica, one group from Panama, and five groups from the U.S. The final day of the conference featured a sterilization field clinic led by visiting Florida veterinarian Elton Gissendammer and volunteer Theresa Ink. It was prelude to an even bigger sterilization outreach effort a week later, orchestrated by the ANPA.
“We did 94 surgeries in three locations,” Gisela Vico Pesch of ANPA reported.
I visited Costa Rica largely to find out what such numbers mean. As Vicente moved from the history and geography of Costa Rica to the sociology and economics, I counted dogs and cats, as I also did throughout a week of exploring the major Costa Rican bio-regions. I counted animals both from vehicles and on foot, by both day and night, in habitats including the frontier with Nicaragua, the Monteverde cloud forest, and the Manuel San Antonio National Park region, as well as in the densely populated San Jose/Heredia corridor.
Altogether, I counted 510 dogs, of whom 298 (58%) were free-roaming, but only 65 (13%) appeared to be without homes, and only five (1%) appeared to be fully feral. I saw 42 puppies (8%), but no roadkilled dogs or cats of any age.
A much cited 1980 report on toxoplasmosis and several follow-up papers by University of Costa Rica researcher Armando Ruiz and J.K. Frenkel of the University of Kansas School of Medicine asserted that Costa Rica had an excessively large free-roaming cat population.
The original study was published in the prestigious American Journal of Epidemiology, but the peer review apparently did not include people who dealt with the dogs and cats of Costa Rica on a daily basis.
“Based on our surveys and counts of cats identified by their color patterns, we calculated that there were from 1.3 cats per house in Quesada to 3.8 cats per house in Limon, and from 13 cats per square kilometer in San Ignacio to 3,330 in Limon,” Frenkel posted to the International Society for Infectious Diseases online bulletin board ProMED-mail on November 6, 2001.
Extrapolating to Hawaii the Ruiz-and-Frenkel conclusion that cats were the major vector for transmission of toxoplasmosis to humans in Costa Rica, J.K. Ikeda of the Hawaii Department of Health in an October 2000 report attributed to Ruiz and Frenkel the further claim that, “The culture of Costa Ricans was tolerant to cats primarily out of fear of bad luck from killing cats. Despite their dislike of cats, people would often feed them food scraps such as raw chicken entrails and heads, thereby perpetuating infections of toxoplasmosis.”
Ikeda claimed that Ruiz and Frenkel found even greater numbers of cats in rural districts than in cities.
The assertions of Ruiz and Frenkel are not supported by the much more recent findings of Carlos Drews, DVM, who recently directed a survey by direct personal interview of 1,021 representative Costa Rican households. Drews found that 53% of Costa Rican households keep dogs, but only 15% keep cats. His study results appeared in a 2001 edition of the journal Society & Animals.
Katherine Gibson of the Zancudo Asociacion Para Proteger Animales (see link) called the cat population density postulated by Ruiz and Frenkel, “Quite funny. While it is true that in cities and larger towns there are feral cats,” Gibson said, “I seriously doub that in the country as a whole we could have more than a fraction of the amount of cats per square kilometer that they claim. In most parts of Costa Rica it’s damned hard to keep a cat outdoors, as the snakes eat them.”
Having fed five sterilized feral cats who were too wild to bring indoors, Gibson admitted losing four of them to snakes. “I still have one outdoor cat,” Gibson added, “but she has already been retrieved from the mouth of a boa once, and I expect has snake smarts by now.”
I counted just 21 cats, whose main habitat appeared to be hotel grounds –among the few viable habitats not already occupied by dogs. This may be because hotels poison dogs, and kill or remove snakes, and/or because hotels are more careful about refuse disposal and rat control than residential and rural neighborhoods.
Either way, as seen elsewhere throughout the world, cats lose in habitat competition with dogs. Being bigger and more aggressive, dogs monopolize any food sources available to both species, and are able to find and kill kittens. Confined to mousing on rooftops, cat populations remain limited, especially when most of the buildings are much farther than jumping distance apart, as they are throughout Costa Rica.
Only when most free-roaming dogs are removed from the streets, as was achieved in most U.S. cities between approximately 1960 and 1980, can a feral cat population explode. Thus the ratio of feral cats to stray dogs received by those U.S. animal control departments which always tried to capture both cats and dogs went from about one cat per nine dogs in 1960 to three cats for each dog by 2000.
Allan Templeton, an American living in Costa Rica since 1978, operating the Hotel Costa Verde and several surrounding commercial developments near Manuel San Antonio National Park since 1985, told us that all the hotel and restaurant owners of that region routinely poison cats, to keep the cats out of their open-air kitchens. Templeton admitted that he poisons feral cats “because there isn’t anything else to do.” Otherwise, he said, they open kitchen cabinets to steal cupcakes and sugar.
I doubted this. The motto of the Hotel Costa Verde is, “Still more monkeys than people.” Squirrel monkeys are abundant on the grounds. Capuchins live at Manuel San Antonio. Monkeys might open kitchen cabinets to steal food, or coatimundis might, but few cats could or would.
I did, however, see two feral cat mothers with one kitten each at the Hotel Costa Verde. Templeton said he would provide rooms for a McKee Project team if it would come to sterilize the cats, and other local cats and dogs, but when Crawford called him to make arrangements, he claimed the cats had disappeared.
California artist Charlene Broudy, owner/creator of the Xandari Plantation Inn above Alejuela, took a different attitude when I notified her that staff were apparently trying to chase away an orange tomcat with an injured eye. Broudy has adopted three shelter animals, fostered two others, participates in benefits for the homeless animals of Costa Rica, and immediately ordered the staff to treat the cat as an honored guest. Within a few days she flew down to Costa Rica, where she saw to it that the cat got all necessary medical care and became the Xandari hotel cat.
I could tell within moments of entering each community whether the McKee Project or other “no-kill, no shelter” dog and cat sterilization projects had been active there. In many villages, and in the city of Alejuela, where a program directed by Blas Rivas, DVM, is acclaimed by Vicente as a model, there were almost no free-roaming dogs, and all of the dogs looked prosperous. In other villages, every dog was loose, skinny, with drooping nipples or prominent testicles, puppies played dangerously close to the road, and there were markedly more dogs per house.
Occasionally we passed through villages where the dogs were not prosperous, yet were few. Those tended to look like company towns for coffee or pineapple growers, and in these villages any perceived dog surplus might have been poisoned or shot.
The numbers, overall, paralleled my findings from a 1998 survey of the dog and cat population of Puerto Rico–a land mass of only sixth the size of Costa Rica, but somewhat more people, and similar topography, culture, and climate.
In Puerto Rico, 44% of the dogs were free-roaming, 11% appeared to be without homes, and 9% were puppies. Cats, also concentrated in the relatively dog-free zones around hotels, were two-and-a-half times more abundant than in Costa Rica.
However, Puerto Rico has been attempting U.S.-style animal control via sheltering since the 1958 opening of the Humane Society of Puerto Rico in Guaynabo. At least six U.S.-style shelters operated by humane societies with animal control contracts or by municipal animal control departments provide approximately as much cage space relative to human population as the U.S. norm. Their work is supplemented by that of more than two dozen incorporated nonprofit spay/neuter and rescue groups. Five of these organizations export dogs and cats to the U.S. for adoption.
No one collects or publishes shelter data in Puerto Rico, so there is no way to know or even guess the number of dogs and cats killed in the Puerto Rican shelters. I did, however, see plastic bags full of bodies at two of the three largest, and were told at the very largest that about nine out of ten animals received would be killed. I also counted a roadkilled dog or cat for each five live ones.
Overall, I found, the status of dog and cat population control in Puerto Rico is about the same as it was in the U.S. under 20 years ago: bad, but improving now that the shelterless rescue groups have begun to emphasize low-cost and free sterilization of owned pets, neuter/return of feral dogs and cats who have suitable habitat to go back to, and adoption strategies that put the adoptable animals where adoptors will see them.
There is reason for long-term optimism despite a 40-year legacy in Puerto Rico of repeating U.S. mistakes, often with grant funding and advisors from major U.S. animal protection charities.
Costa Rica, however, is already a long way ahead. At worst, the Costa Rican dog and cat population is already in approximately the same balance, without the leveling effect of high-volume roadkills and without an extensive shelter network doing high-volume population control killing.
Sheltering was tried
The one conventional U.S.-style shelter in Costa Rica kills under 400 dogs and cats per year, says Asociacion Humanitaria Para la Proteccion Animal de Costa Rica president Lilian Schnog. The AHPPA shelter was built in the mid-1980s under the supervision of World Society for the Protection of Animals field representative Gerardo Huertas. Billed in mailings to U.S. donors as an intended example for shelters throughout Latin America, it was situated in Heredia, as close as possible to the geographical center of Costa Rica. Old photos show a conventional rectangular cinder block kennel with a tin roof, straight indoor/outdoor runs, and a chain link fence–still a standard design, but now increasingly recognized as much less than optimum for facilitating adoptions and maintaining the psychological health of the animals.
WSPA moved Huertas to Colombia in 1992.
Schnog, originally the shelter manager, formed the AHPPA and took over the shelter with heavy backing from the Humane Society International division of the Humane Society of the United States. The AHPPA is now listed as an HSUS regional affiliate.
“It was just a rudimentary shelter when we started,” Schnog said in August 2000, “and was in need of significant repair. We established a veterinary clinic. Our two veterinarians sterilize 20 to 25 animals per day. Some are street animals and some are done for people who cannot afford a private vet. We help about 15 small animal protection groups, and we travel around the country to do low-cost or no-cost sterilization for those who cannot visit. Of the 1,500 animals we take in annually as strays or surrendered by the owners, we euthanize 20% to 25%, and adopt out the rest.”
The AHPPA has a loyal constituency of volunteers and supporters, but received a mixed review in June 2000 from Maryland Animal Advocates treasurer Herb Morrison, who had recently volunteered there for a day, as well as putting in days with several other Costa Rican organizations. Morrison then reported on his observations in an guest column for ANIMAL PEOPLE, but omitted mention of the AHPPA because he felt it was not accomplishing as much as the McKee Project and the Asociacion Nacional Protectora de Animales, founded in San Jose as a no-kill shelter by Irma Vico Pesch but now concentrating on sterilization outreach coordinated by her daughter, attorney Gisela Vico Pesch.
Schnog claimed there were more than 100 animals at the AHPPA shelter the day Morrison visited; Morrison counted 29. Either way, the facility is not big enough to take many animals off the streets without doing high-volume killing.
Schnog in subsequent e-mails accused Morrison, the McKee Project, and the Veterinary Licensing Board of trying to sabotage her program.
Morrison and the heads of other organizations around Costa Rica praised McKee and the Licensing Board, however, for providing empowering logistic and moral support, and contrasted their approach to that of the AHPPA, which was from the beginning supposed to be a model of a centralized program, inherently contrasting and conflicting with the localized and decentralized approach of the rest.
Whether or not the AHPPA is deemed successful at what it does, it is not as prominent or influential as might be expected of the only shelter and best-funded nonprofit animal protection charity in a very small nation. It sent no representatives to the National College of Veterinarians’ animal welfare conference. None of the people who did attend the conference ever mentioned it without being asked, and only a few of them had more to say about it than a shrug of the shoulders.
A search of the electronic archives of the Tico Times, the major English-language newspaper in Costa Rica, suggested that the staff finds the initiatives of the “no-kill, no shelter” groups much more often newsworthy.
Vicente believes the basic issue is that, “We in Costa Rica do not believe in sending dogs who have committed no crime to jail. We barely even believe in sending human criminals to jail, so why should we jail our dogs and give them the death penalty? A shelter may be all right for a lost-and-found service, but Ticos will never accept U.S.-style animal control.”
As is common among animal rescue groups everywhere, the “no-kill, no shelter” organizations are scarcely a united front. Vicente has conflicted with most of them at times over veterinary standards and record-keeping.
Vicente said that debating Gisela Vico Pesch, who often speaks for the smaller groups, is his biggest headache. But Vicente also extolled her as “the great voice for Costa Rican animals of the coming generation.” Just 28, “She will be here long after the rest of us,” Vicente said, “and it is important that by the time we leave, we hope many years from now, she represents standards that are high but attainable for all the world, especially Latin America. Everything will spread from here,” Vicente predicted.
Fluently multilingual, Gisela Vico Pesch has not yet been a prominent conference speaker, but informally represented the “no-kill, no shelter” approach at the 1999 and 2001 International Companion Animal Welfare Conferences in Sofia, Bulgaria, and Istanbul, Turkey, as well as at the 2000 Spay/USA conference in New Orleans.
There are many challenges ahead before Costa Rica can convincingly claim success in controlling the dog and cat population without shelters or high-volume killing.
One challenge will be extending the present approach to sterilization to include rabies vaccination. Costa Rica had not had a human rabies case since 1970 until a nine-year-old boy and his 69-year-old nanny died from rabies in October 2001. From Golfito, near the Panamanian border, they lived in a house which had become infested with vampire bats.
Costa Rica has more than 130 native bat species in all, but only vampires are known to carry rabies, and they normally feed only on the blood of cattle. Even the transmission of rabies from vampires to cattle is rare. The last known rabies outbreak among livestock in Costa Rica occurred in 1987.
The 2001 victims’ family had reportedly encouraged a cat to hunt the vampires in their home, and were apparently infected when the cat scratched them.
Costa Rica was pronounced totally free of canine rabies by the World Health Organization in 1980. Since then, the Costa Rican rate of dog and cat vaccination fell to as little as 3%, according to Vicente. Some Costa Rican dog-and-cat veterinary specialists have never administered an anti-rabies vaccine. ZAPPA, whose founder Katherine Gibson was familiar with rabies from her previous work in the U.S., may have been the only sterilization program in Costa Rica to routinely vaccinate all animals against rabies exposure. Valverde, Gibson, and others familiar with anti-rabies vaccination spent some of their coffee breaks at the College of Veterinarians explaining to other attendees the details of how to set up a local anti-rabies program.
Crawford tried to make vaccination a part of the McKee Project when it started, she said, but “almost lost the project over trying to bring donated vaccines into Costa Rica and give them for free.” Perceived as an unnecessary extra, offered in competition with private practice veterinarians, her anti-rabies project brought so much more opposition than the sterilization program that she was forced to drop it.
Carlos Alfaro, DVM, meanwhile vaccinated the animals of 730 households in the Golfito area, trying to quell a panic which reportedly produced several stonings of free-roaming dogs and massacres of bat colonies.
Earlier, on the eve of the conference, Vicente spent two days in the vicinity dissuading public health officials from trying to prevent further rabies outbreaks by poisoning all free-roaming dogs and cats, plus any bat colonies they could find.
Another challenge for “No-kill, no shelter” proponents will be developing an alternative to shelter statistics to document their progress. In absence of dog and cat licensing data and shelter entry and exit numbers, Costa Rican sterilization programs have no way to measure their accomplishments. They need to know when they have reached the 70% sterilization threshhold that prevents dog and cat population growth, and they need to be able to demonstrate their success to the rest of the world, if the “No-kill, no shelter” approach is to spread as Vicente envisions that it will.
Gisela Vico Pesch e-mailed shortly after my return to the U.S. that she has begun to try to organize local surveys to produce the needed data.
Relative to the sterilization work already underway, anti-rabies vaccination and statistical quantification are low-budget items. They are the parts of a dog and cat control program that most nations begin with, while building shelter infrastructure and wondering if the funds can ever be raised to do the volume of low-cost and free sterilization that it takes to preclude population control killing.
(An earlier edition of this article appeared in ANIMAL PEOPLE, December 2001.)