ZAPPA ¡Pura vida!

From ANIMAL PEOPLE,  December 2001:

ZAPPA ¡Pura vida!

by Katherine Gibson

I arrived in Costa Rica by sailboat about 11 years ago and first lived on an island in the jungle.  I had previously worked for humane societies in the U.S. and the U.S. Virgin Islands.  We had begun doing low cost spay/neuter clinics,  but at each stop I also had the unfortunate job of having to kill animals we had no room for.  We tried to adopt out all we could, but there still seemed to be no lasting solution to pet overpopulation.

Here in Costa Rica there were no shelters,  and there was a chance to try another way.  On the jungle island I started vaccinating local dogs and treating them for mange,  as well as neutering some,  but back then I couldn’t find a vet who was really qualified to operate on small animals.

About three years ago,  after moving to Playa Zancudo where there were a lot of homeless strays,  I found Dr. Andre Tellos,  who was dedicated and talented,  working on dogs and cats,  and has been active in all we have done so far.

I read an article about the McKee Project at about the same time I was forming the Zancudo Asociacion Para Proteger Animales,  ZAPPA for short. Having learned that you must reach at least a 70% sterilization level to achieve a controlled population,  I was planning a larger clinic.  I contacted Gerardo Vicente,  DVM,  and Christine Crawford of the McKee Project,  who were eager to help.  Debbie Walsh of the Zancudo Beach Club provided rooms and meals for the visiting veterinarians and helpers they sent to us.

Setting up the first clinic was the most work.   Playa Zancudo is a small community.  Each family has a few dogs,  with an average monthly income of about $300. Paying to sterilize their pets is beyond their means.  I asked my neighbors for help.  A local person went with me to each home,  offering to fix all the pets of the community.  We explained the advantages of a neutered pet, reassured them about the safety of the procedure,  and set up clinic appointments.

Finally the big day arrived with three wonderful vets from McKee,  who drove eight hours to participate.  The vets from the nearest town drove “only” two hours on bad roads to assist us. We had several long operating tables set up on my deck,  overlooking the beach,  with each table sporting an anesthesia machine and makeshift lights.   We had all kinds of help from community members,  some with vehicles,  who helped to take the dogs back to their homes as they came out of the anesthesia.

Groups of neighbors chatted outside in the yard,  their dogs leashed or sitting,  and others watched the surgery from the deck railings.  This made the clinic a successful social event,  as people looked at each other’s pets,  with the animals already seeming to matter more to the owners.  The vets were kept busy from early morning until a bit after dark Saturday, and right up until they loaded their cars to return to San Jose on Sunday.

Since that first clinic,  the doors have been opened,  and we have really noticed a rise in consciousness about pets in the community. The villagers see the pleasure of having a clean, healthy animal who plays with and protects their family.  They see how together we can manage veterinary care for everyone, and how it benefits all of us living here on this small beach.

Now it is unusual  to see a neglected animal or litter,  whereas before it was common and mostly ignored.   Locals see the need for vaccinations now,  too.

Lately, we have been doing clinics in surrounding small towns.  My hope is to become able to do more clinics in the larger towns, where the numbers of dogs and cats are more intimidating.

As we have learned,  working in a less developed nation,  among low income families, providing free sterilization is a necessity. Families desire to keep their pets healthy,  but they cannot afford even half-price surgery.  We depend upon donations from wealthier community members,  and from outside the region.

I can’t express how grateful I am to finally see my dream of nearly 30 years become a reality,  and see what a difference one can make by just asking for some volunteers and picturing a world where we will not need shelters,  or kill

innocent dogs and cats.  When I first read about Dr. Vicente’s “No-kill,  no shelter” concept,  I did not believe it could become viable,  as I did not really believe people would care enough to be responsible for their pets,  but I now believe that this really can happen and benefit us all.

If anyone wants tips on forming clinics in their area,  or would like to donate to our work,  please send me an e-mail at <>.



Editor’s note:


I first met Katherine Gibson in 1973. She was introduced to me by a mutual friend employed by a California animal shelter which that year killed 35,000 dogs and cats:  57.3 per 1,000 humans in the county.

This would today be one of the highest killing ratios in the U.S.,  but then it was among the lowest.  In 1971 that shelter killed 45,000 dogs and cats: 73.7 per 1,000 residents. Then the shelter opened one of the first low-cost sterilization clinics in the U.S.

Several name changes later,  to reflect covering a larger territory,  the shelter now kills about 6,250 dogs and cats per year:  8.9 per 1,000 residents. This is better than the current national average of 16.8,  but is considered mediocre for the region,  since San Francisco killed only 2.6 dogs and cats per 1,000 human residents during fiscal 2001.

I did not know Gibson well then,  but I worked closely with the person who introduced us in publishing the writing of recently returned Vietnam veterans and helping them through episodes of what is now known as “post-traumatic stress disorder.”  Back then it was just called “going berserk,”  “freaking out,”  or “attempting suicide.”

In time,  I saw that while our mutual friend and other shelter workers did not go berserk or freak out,  and were quick to assist anyone else in a crisis,  they were as hurt by their work and as vulnerable to post-traumatic stress as any of the Namvets.  Few people would listen to the Namvets rave and cry,  but no one heard the veterans of the shelter front.

I often wondered what became of the shelter veterans,  as they burned out,  dropped out,  and drifted away.   Unexpect-edly meeting Gibson in Costa Rica,  discovering what she has been doing,  and seeing how much happier she is now affirmed our belief here at ANIMAL PEOPLE that getting away from killing animals is also about getting away from killing ourselves.


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