July 26, 2004
AHPPA Has Altered the Landscape of Animal Protection in Costa Rica
Years ago, a boy showed up at the door of the Asociación Humanitaria Para la Proteccion Animal de Costa Rica (AHPPA) carrying a small box that he had found by the railroad tracks. Peeping out of the carton was a severely injured, two-month-old puppy. The animal's skin and eyes were badly burned, and his body looked as pink as a baby pig's. The puppy and his littermates had been doused with gasoline and set on fire.
Pepito, as he later came to be called, was the only survivor. Despite his injuries, he wagged his tail and welcomed the attention when he arrived at the AHPPA clinic and shelter. The shelter decided that this resilient little puppy deserved a second chance at life and nursed him back to health.
Once the staff nursed him back to health, of course, they couldn't let him go. These days, Pepito is the AHPPA's official mascot and "meeter and greeter." Although blind from the original abuse, Pepito knows his way around the shelter, and instantly welcomes all new animals—especially dogs and puppies who he hopes will sleep by his side, in his own bedroom at the shelter. The AHPPA has crowned Pepito "King of the Shelter." *
Pepito is just one of the many animals AHPPA has rescued. Yet the shelter's efforts do not stop at rescuing animals. They also aim to change Costa Rica's cultural view of animals.
Not long ago, the fate of animals in the Central American country was grim. Dogs and cats were not seen as companion animals, but as working animals; dogs were for guarding the home, cats for chasing mice. Some people actually believed that if a canine were left chained, he would be a better watchdog. Dogs were only fed leftovers, and if there was no food left over, they went hungry. Often cats were not fed at all—under the notion that deprivation would make them better mousers.
"People used to see animals as their property, like a chair, car, closet. They did not have much feelings for them, thinking that the animals also had no feelings," says Lilian Schnog, AHPPA President.
When animals were no longer wanted by their owners, the creatures were simply thrown out on the street. Because most of the castaways tended to be females (tossed out because they were in heat), the stray population grew to an overwhelming level.
The times, they are a changin'
Thanks in part to the AHPPA, the attitude towards animals is gradually changing. Not only does the shelter rescue homeless, abused, and abandoned animals, but its advanced veterinary clinic is one of a kind in Costa Rica. It provides spay/neuter and other services at low or no cost for residents, while absorbing the fees when sterilizing strays.
The clinic now sterilizes 12,000 animals a year and treats another 6,000 for injuries. The AHPPA is open to all animals, including cows, goats, toucans, armadillos and parrots. The shelter has an phenomenal 80 percent adoption rate, and all of the animals who find homes leave the clinic spayed or neutered.
"We do not get a lot of adoptions back. We try to keep track [of them] by when they are adopted; we will always help the animal with the vaccinations or when he or she gets sick," says Schnog.
Experience has taught us that the only way to make a lasting impact on the overpopulation of companion animals is through sterilization. Clearly Lilian's wonderful efforts are providing a long-term and humane solution.
AHPPA's humble beginnings started with a building, donated in 1982, which came complete with several cages and more than 100 dogs and cats. The World Society for the Protection of Animals had inherited the property and turned the space into an animal shelter.
Schnog founded the AHPPA in 1992, and, with financial assistance from HSI, took over the shelter. With our continued support and training, AHPPA has grown to become a respected HSI Shelter & Advocacy Partner. In just 12 years' time, the shelter doubled its staff to meet the needs of the community.
The shelter offers informal public education on a daily basis—staffers talk to visitors about animal protection and send them home with literature. Schnog says AHPPA's education efforts will soon turn more formal when an on-site classroom is built. The classroom's goal, she says, will be to allow people to "see and feel" the effects of animal neglect and abuse as well as to promote compassion toward all creatures. This, Schnog hopes, will prevent another case like Pepito's.
Law and order
The people responsible for Pepito's injuries were never identified. But even if they had been, there was no law at the time to punish the perpetrators. Things are much different today. Through the persistence of an AHPPA board member, and with an assist from the First Strike [PDF] program of The Humane Society of the United States, the laws have, in fact, changed for the better.
First Strike has documented the link between cruelty to animals and human violence, and works to make this connection clear to law enforcement and social service agencies. Diane Fernandez, an AHPPA board member and attorney, held several meetings with local judges to discuss this link. Her lectures were so successful that she was asked to repeat them in the higher courts, and in other regions.
Many more meetings later, the Costa Rican government decided to implement its first animal protection law, which not only makes abuse a punishable offense, but also specifies which behaviors are considered abuse. Even better, if a shelter can prove an animal is being abused, it now has the right to rescue the animal, with police assistance.
The law specifies the grounds for acceptable euthanasia as well. Though it was once a common practice of animal control, poisoning of animals is no longer legal. If euthanasia becomes necessary, it must be performed by a veterinarian, without pain to the animal.
While these new laws aren't perfect, says Schnog, they are a step in the right direction, and contribute to the people's improved view of animals.
The AHPPA has made great strides to increase awareness of animal cruelty and overpopulation. Their success in promoting compassion for animals through education and awareness, and through the First Strike program has changed attitudes as well as laws. The AHPPA has developed from a dedicated staff and a supportive board. It is a model facility in this challenging region of the world.
*Pepito died of natural causes on May 16, 2005 after 12 happy years at the AHPPA.