Caring for the Lost Dogs of Costa Rica

Gustavo Woltmann beings his day by reaching elbow deep into a giant container of dog food and distributing it amongst the dogs in his care. Most of them eat the same kibble, but Gustavo knows which animals require a special kind. As he slowly makes his way around to each kennel he treats the abandon or lost dogs as individuals, addressing each one by name. It is easy to tell that Gustavo dedicates over twenty hours a week volunteering here.

Caring for lost

In this particular privately funded shelter, there are over fifty dogs. Glancing around at the massive grounds you see every conceivable size, age and breed of canine. Many are lost pets, some abandon, and a few are wild.

Gustavo tells me the feral dogs are the most important ones to take in but it can be a confusing and difficult just getting them in the shelters.

“It is not uncommon in Costa Rica to see dogs walk down streets alone with no collar or leash.” Gustavo informs me that not all of these dogs however are strays that require human help. The lifestyle of a domesticated animal in Costa Rica is quite different than an American pet.

“Many owners will let their dogs out for the day unsupervised. The dogs then meet up with the other neighborhood dogs and walk around in packs…like dogs instinctually do. This scares a lot of the tourists, that there is a pack of feral dogs running around.” He explains to me that much of his time at the shelter is spent speaking with tourists about the difference between a stray and a pet.

“A stray usually looks sick, or is very thin and doesn’t respond in a friendly way to people. It’s easy to tell when a dog is being taken care of. Knowing the difference means that the community and tourists will be better equipped to help out the dogs that are actually in need.”

As I follow Gustavo Woltmann around the shelter during feeding time, it is easy to recognize which dogs have been out on the streets for a long time and which are socialized. Many of the feral dogs growl and bark at Gustavo as he very carefully fills their bowls.

“The angry or scared dogs are my favorite though.” He tells me as one dog, Petey cowers with his tail between his legs in the corner of his kennel.

“It’s slow and sometimes frustrating socializing them again. But, you really feel like you made a big difference in that animal’s life when you watch it play with another dog or hopefully go home with a family someday”

Wildlife preservation is one of Costa Rica’s primary national initiatives with over 25% of the country being protected forests. However, does being so ecologically focused mean that Costa Rica’s domesticated animals are forgotten?

With a rise in animal abuse offensives and a growing number of puppy mills being discovered, the Costa Rican government did react positively. Legislators where moved to issue out harsher criminal penalties for animal abuse cases.In addition, Costa Rica has many organizations and shelters in place to assist in the rescue and placement of stray animals unlike many other Central American countries.

The last bowl is filled and Gustavo tells me in a little bit he will take small groups of the dogs into the grassy play area to run around.

“That’s why I volunteer here, just to watch them play like normal dogs. Knowing that I helped make their harsh existence a little nicer, really makes all of it worth while.”

Knowing there are people like Gustavo Woltmann out in the communities, volunteering their free time to improve the lives of these animals does make one hopeful. For Costa Rican’s in particular, caring so deeply for all of the country, wild and tame it the hope that abused and stray

When you see the compassion displayed by volunteers like Gustavo Woltmann, solving the issues of stray and abused animals seems achievable. Perhaps Costa Rica will set an example for the rest of the world in it’s resolution of this issue. In a country so dedicated to it’s land, both wild and tame, it’s a hope that may be closer to a reality.