SAN JOSE, Costa Rica––New Costa Rican President Luis Guillermo Solís either failed to sign into law the anti-dogfighting law he helped to push through the legislature or did not announce signing it, but the law took effect anyway on May 29, 2014, when published in the official government gazette.
The law passed on April 14, 2014, on the next-to-last day of the last legislative session under the former government. Former president Laura Chinchilla had established an animal-friendly reputation, but left the dogfighting bill unsigned before leaving office.
The Tico Times, the leading Costa Rican English-language newspaper, anticipated that since “improved animal welfare was one of Solís’ main campaign promises,” signing the dogfighting bill “could be one of Solís’ first accomplishments as president.”
Inaugurated on May 8, 2013, Solís instead took no action on the bill. It became law without his signature because Costa Rica abolished the presidential “pocket veto” in 1948. A Costa Rican president may veto legislation, but not by doing nothing, avoiding the political risks that casting an actual veto brings.
Winning 77% of the votes cast, Solís campaigned for the presidency on the Citizens Action Party ticket “with two clear fronts: animal abuse and corruption,” assessed Andrea Rodriguez of La Nacion.
In his victory speech on April 6, 2014, Solís declared “No more animal abuse in Costa Rica!” His platform included specific mention of support for low-cost dog and cat sterilization clinics and humane education.
Costa Rica has long had several ambitious low-cost dog and cat sterilization programs, but in absence of active government support, reaching their collective goal of achieving a “no kill” nation has remained elusive.
Founded by American immigrant Christine Crawford in 1998, the nonprofit McKee Project introduced high-volume, low-cost dog and cat sterilization to Costa Rica with the support of then-Costa Rican veterinary licensing board president Alejandro Valverde, DVM, and his successor, Gerardo Vicenté, DVM. Vicenté is now executive director of the McKee Project.
La Asociación Nacional Protectora de Animales, founded in 1980, helped to eradicate rabies from Costa Rica, achieved in 1987. ANPA, headed by attorney Gisela Vico, then transitioned from no-kill sheltering to providing high-volume, low-cost dog and cat sterilization in 1999.
Also in 1999, another U.S. immigrant, Katherine Gibson, formed the Zancudo Asociacion Para Proteger Animales to provide low-cost and free dog and cat sterilization in the southern border region, near Panama.
By the end of 2001, as many as 60 veterinarians participated in the Costa Rican sterilization programs. A fourth nonprofit program of note, the Spay/Neuter International Project, debuted in 2013, begun by former McKee program director Carla Ferraro.
Together, the programs have raised the Costa Rican dog and cat sterilization rate from near zero to about 40%, believed to be the highest in Latin America, McKee director Vicenté told ANIMALS 24-7.
Pit bull proliferation
But pit bull proliferation stimulated by dogfighting has slowed progress in recent years. Raids on three alleged dogfighting rings in 2012 and 2013 brought the impoundment of 30 pit bulls.
““Finding these very specific bloodlines in Costa Rica proves that the level of organization and the resources of these dogfighting rings is on the rise,” warned Costa Rican animal health agency director Allen Sanchez.
The dogfighting bill, authored by legislator Walter Céspedes and endorsed by both Humane Society International and American Stafford Costa Rica, significantly raises the penalities for dogfighting. The only fine previously levied against a convicted dogfighter in Costa Rica was $200. As well as increasing fines, clarifying that dogfighting is a criminal offense, and providing prison sentences of up to three years for dogfighting, the dogfighting bill prohibits any activity that might cause aggression, abuse or injury to dogs.
Specific wording also bans using dogs in weight-pulling competitions and in “pole jumping,” in which pit bulls are encouraged to leap and hold a piece of meat dangling from a pole for several minutes.
In addition, the bill creates a national roster of dogfighting organizers. “These offenders would be required to register with Costa Rica’s Animal Health Service (SENASA),” Tico Times explained, “making it more difficult for them to buy aggressive dogs.”
Most controversial among pit bull advocates, “From now on, you will need to have a permit to become owner of such dogs and people must go through psychological testing to prove their mental balance, as with weapons,” summarized Gustavo Fallas of AmeliaRueda.com, a news web site named after Costa Rica’s most popular radio commentator.
Breeders and sellers of dogs defines SENASA as dangerous may be sentenced to up to one year in prison, once the enforcement regulations are published and brought into effect. SENASA legal director Antonio Van der Luch anticipates that completing and introducing the enforcement regulations may take to the end of 2014.
“We are very pleased that this slipped right under the wire,” HSI Latin America regional direct Cynthia Dent said of the bill on passage.
While Laura Chinchilla left the Costa Rican presidency without signing the dogfighting bill, she left as a legacy her endorsement of a national ban on sport hunting. The first Costa Rican law passed by ballot initiative, the ban was ratified by an eight-to-one ration in the legislature, and took effect in January 2013.
But Chinchilla administration environment minister René Castro on March 17, 2014 lost a year-long effort to close the 97-year-old Simón Bolívar Zoo in San José and the Santa Ana zoological conservation center, both managed by a company called the Pro Zoos Fundazoo Foundation. Castro in 2012 cancelled the zoos’ permits to lease public property. His edict was overturned in April 2014 by the Costa Rican Administrative Law Court in San Juan, on grounds that the zoos were given insufficient advance notice. The zoos will now be allowed to operate for 10 more years.
“The Simón Bolívar Zoo attracts more than 130,000 visitors a year, runs educational programs, and has its own policy of releasing animals back into the wild whenever possible,” wrote Jonathan Watts of The Guardian.
“We are more a rescue centre than a zoo. We have never bought or collected animals,” spokesperson Eduardo Bolanos told Watts.