Although its official name is Territorio de Zaguates (the Land of Stray Dogs), the four-legged residents of this no-kill shelter in Costa Rica probably think of it more as El Cielo des Perros (Dog Heaven) – or at least the next best thing to a forever home.
About 800 dogs rescued from the streets live on the ranch in Alajuela until they are adopted. The nonprofit shelter was founded eight years ago by the husband-and-wife team of Alvaro Saumet and Lya Battle to promote animal welfare and respect. It is funded by donations and run by volunteers.
Many of the dogs are allowed to roam freely on the property for part of the day in an effort to improve their health and adoptability. There’s also an indoor area with beds and bathing facilities.
Years before an Arizona shelter started dropping breed labels to make dogs more adoptable, Territorio found another solution. It came up with a unique breed name for every mixed-breed dog as unique as the dog itself: Alaskan Collie Fluffyterrier and Fire-tailed Border Cocker, for example. In 2013, these names helped boost adoption rates a whopping 1,400 percent.
Visitors are welcome to take a hike with the dogs and, hopefully, find a perfect match.
“If you wish to adopt, you can schedule a walking hike on their property, and if any of them choose you, you will be allowed to adopt them,” wrote Andrew George in a Facebook post March 24 about Territorio de Zaguates that has gotten a lot of media attention.
Both Saumet and Battle are longtime animal lovers. Saumet grew up with dogs, while Battle was more attracted to “unloved pets,” she said in an email. “I loved snakes, spiders, lizards, frogs – you name it!”
Battle said she grew up assuming that everyone loved dogs, and believed the many dogs she saw on the street were on their way to or from their homes. But as she got older, reality set in — and broke her heart.
After she and Saumet married and moved into a house with a yard, they adopted a couple of puppies from one of the only animal shelters in Costa Rica at the time. “A horrible, high-kill shelter that still stands,” Battle said. “Leaving that place that day, with our little pups in our arms, knowing that the ones we hadn’t chosen would probably die soon, killed me.”
Battle started taking in dogs that seemed to need help, nursing them back to health and having them spayed or neutered. “It was not a very common practice at the time,” she said. “I decided there had to be a place other than the street for those wonderful dogs that for some reason no one wanted.”
Oso, the dog who inspired Territorio, was the fourth or fifth stray Battle took in. “He was oddly beautiful,” she said. “Yellow with a white mask like a Husky, curled tail and little ears.” She noticed his tear ducts protruded, so she took him to a veterinarian, who performed a simple operation to fix them.
As Oso recovered, Battle posted flyers of the lost dog and took him out for walks, hoping he’d find his way home, but no such luck. He was adopted – and returned — seven times.
“Alvaro and I decided to stop trying to find him a home and just keep him,” Battle said. “And that is when I realized that Oso had been lucky. He was a lovely dog but had no market value. Did this mean that he or any of the ‘unpopular’ dogs deserve to be out on the street? Or even euthanized only because society could not see their redeeming qualities?”
That’s when the couple decided to start Territorio de Zaguates, “a place they could call home even if they should never find ther own,” as Battle described it.
Since then, “Many dogs have left their paw prints in our hearts,” Battle said. “Old ones who made recoveries and hung around long after everyone had lost hope. Vicious ones that became teddy bears. Or dogs with social needs who proved undefeatable.”
Running the Shelter Isn’t Easy, But Always Worth It
While Territorio is paradise for dogs, running it has not been easy for Battle and Saumet.
“We have struggled daily against naysayers, haters, near-sighted government officials and ministries, terrible shortages and daily challenges of our own,” Battle said, adding that it has always been worth it.
“If a couple of ordinary people like us were able to do this for so long with no help from the authorities, without anything but their own jobs, their dwindling assets and a lot of stubborn determination and love, then big government budgets in other countries could do the same,” she said. “But shelters are not the solution — they are the reflection of our crumbling society. If we want to solve the problem, we have to stop buying from backyard breeders and demand our governments assign a portion of taxes to spaying and neutering all dogs and cats.”
Battle and Saumet have achieved a lot over the past eight years. They’ve been successful in creating awareness about the problem of dog overpopulation in Costa Rica. They have helped minimize the stigma attached to strays and educated people about the importance of spaying and neutering. “But most of all we have been able to offer whoever is interested a different option to the word ‘shelter,’” Battle said.
“In Territorio, every dog has a name, a second chance and everything we can manage to provide for them. The only thing we refuse to give them is an expiration date.”
For more information about this heaven on earth for stray dogs and how you can help, visit the Territorio de Zaguates website.