Fixing the street dog problem in Costa Rica by Herb Morrison

From ANIMAL PEOPLE, June 2000:

ALAJUELA, Costa Rica––Dawn and Sid Scott, immigrants to Costa Rica from Chicago, have seen the tough side of Guanacaste from ground level, traveling the poorly maintained roads of this northwestern province to round up dogs for veterinary care at frequent intervals since mid-1998. They have sterilized more than 225 dogs at their own expense, paying about $20 U.S. per surgery.

Most dogs they meet belong to human families but live outside. Though Costa Rica has had no canine rabies since 1987, dogs commonly suffer from mange, internal parasites, and distemper. National veterinary licensing board member Gerardo Vicente, DVM, estimates that only about a third of the half million dogs in Costa Rica are given proper medical care. Most receive food but little else.

Puppies, typically born outdoors, are usually given away to friends and family. Some are left to wander.

Alajuela veterinarian Blas Rivias, however, has enrolled in a new quasi-public crusade against uncontrolled canine reproduction, disease, and neglect, administered by the McKee Project. The McKee Project was incorporated in the U.S. by Christine Crawford, another American immigrant to Costa Rica, in 1998.

Five female volunteers of varying age have helped Rivias to locate and provide low cost and free sterilization services to the companion animals of about 100 lower-income families, who traditionally have not visited veterinarians. Homeless dogs, also treated, are kept by the volunteers during their recovery from sterilization, and are then returned to their neighborhoods, where they resume their lives as “community pets.”

The volunteers were recently honored with community service awards. As Rivias’ incentive, he received from the McKee Project on semi-permanent loan a $4,000 custom-built anesthesia machine. To keep it, he must perform five low-cost sterilizations per week. The McKee Project has already loaned 10 such machines to Costa Rican vets, and hopes to make 60 more available.

Each veterinarian participating in the McKee Project additionally agrees to provide care to all critically injured or ill animals according to their guardians’ ability to pay.

Forty veterinarians are now enrolled in the program. Another 30 are expected to join.

Vicente believes that the McKee Project approach can succeed not only in Costa Rica but also in other underdeveloped nations.

A key element in Costa Rica, as in U.S. anti-pet overpopulation projects, is guaranteeing participating veterinarians a specific minimum fee for doing low-cost sterilizations. As yet, however, funds to make up the difference between what veterinarians expect to be paid and what pet guardians can afford to pay are scarce.

The Costa Rican strategy also calls for each neighborhood to provide a small facility to house homeless animals following surgery. It is believed that this approach can eliminate any need for large U.S.-style urban shelters.

Crawford created the McKee Project as result of her experience as a dog-rescuer in Dominical, a town on the Pacific coast. She named it, she says, for her deceased godmother, Mary Ann McKee. Her project gained stature with the 1998 endorsement of then-veterinary licensing board president Alexander Valverde.

Valverde in February 2000 accepted a position at the University of Guelph in Ontario province, Canada. His successor, Vicente, created the McKee Commission within the veterinary licensing board to supervise the project. As yet, however, the commission receives no government funding. In fact, Costa Rica has no animal control department. Basic anticruelty laws exist, but no government institution claims enforcement or rescue capability.

There are some private animal shelters in Costa Rica. For example, German immigrant Irma Vico and her daughter Gisela, an attorney, operate a care-for-life sanctuary in the mountains north of the capital city, San Jose. Their hilltop compound holds more than 300 dogs, who are attended by a manager plus three fulltime employees. Also participants in the McKee Project, the Vicos employ veterinarian Francisco Arroyo––mostly from Gisela’s personal earnings––to provide ongoing low-cost care to animals in the backcountry. Vicente on March 7 introduced a community humane education project with a presentation to elementary students from the San Jose suburb of Hatillo at the clinic of McKee Commission member Neftali Fallas, DVM. [Contact the McKee Project via Christine Crawford, c/o Selva Mar Express Mail, 1641 NW 79th Ave., Miami, FL 33126; 506-293-6461; .] (Herb Morrison recently completed volunteer stints with several different Costa Rican animal protection organiza – tions. He is treasurer of Maryland Animal Advocates Inc., P.O. Box 9184, Baltimore, MD 21222; 410-282-6433; .)

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