Lilian Schnog, the owner of the biggest animal shelter in Costa Rica, doesn’t like animal shelters.
“I hate to see animals in a cage. But what options are there?” says Schnog.
In a country with a vast animal overpopulation problem, a lack of education and a defective animal-control policy, Schnog’s nonprofit animal shelter in the northern Central Valley mountain town of San Rafael de Heredia is making one of the largest pushes to control the problem of stray cats and dogs – and has come under fire for killing thousands of animals in recent years.
“The Costa Rican state has always neglected (animal) control,” said Federico Piza, chairman of Costa Rica’s Veterinarians Association, the official licensing body for vets. Because of the lack of government controls, groups such as Schnog’s, many of them nonprofits, have filled the vacuum, with few checks on their methods or budgets.
In May of last year, Costa Rica’s Legislative Assembly created the National Animal Health Service (SENASA), charged with regulating the country’s pet clinics and refuges, among other responsibilities, such as managing livestock overpopulation, monitoring health risks at the country’s ports and borders, and controlling plagues.
The reform largely transferred animal control responsibilities from the Health Ministry to SENASA, a department under the Livestock and Agriculture Ministry (MAG), and was part of the government’s sweeping reforms to buff up the agricultural sector in the face of a diversifying, globalizing economy (TT, May 25).
Dr. Yayo Vicente, SENASA’s director, says the service is still trying to stand on its feet before it tries enforcing the 2006 animal-control law, which obligates the country’s animal refuges to get operating permits.
“Some of these criteria had never been the government’s responsibility before,” he said.
Vicente said a decree draft to be submitted to the executive branch in the coming months will lay out procedures for animal euthanasia and how or whether refuges will be independently audited, among other requisites.
On paper, Vicente says, SENASA has the power to shut down refuges and clinics that don’t meet the service’s standards. But so far, it has only focused on establishing partnerships to promote neutering projects.
“We’re still in the educational phase. We’ve yet to take out the whip,” he said.
Currently, to be a nonprofit animal shelter in Costa Rica requires only registration in the National Registry, and registration in any other countries from which it accepts donations.
The only government agency that exercises any auditing control over nonprofits is the Comptroller General’s Office, which can audit shelters but rarely does, due to other priorities, Piza said.
Animal shelters “aren’t accountable to anybody. I find it outrageous,” he said.
“Many of them feel they’re doing something right, but don’t really have the necessary controls.”
Shelter Under Fire
Schnog’s high-profile shelter, the Humanitarian Association for Animal Protection in Costa Rica (AHPPA), receives tax breaks, as well as about $10,000 a year from Humane Society International. It also recently received a donation of $8,000 from the British Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
But the refuge has come under fire for years from critics who doubt its adoption rates and point to a history of health problems.
They also question whether it is humane to run a shelter that puts to sleep more than 1,000 animals a year.
However, according to Health Ministry authorities, Schnog’s shelter now has a clean bill of health and is in compliance with the Veterinarians Association, which wasn’t the case before this year, Piza says. He added that in a highly unregulated and unsupervised line of work, Schnog’s is now the most regulated and transparent animal shelter in the country.
Schnog, 60, is the daughter of a Curaçao Toyota importer and a Dutch lawyer, and has always considered herself an animal activist.
After studying dermatology in Holland, she helped start an animal shelter in Aruba before coming to Costa Rica.
Her management style is unusual in many ways. For instance, instead of charging adopters, she charges those who bring in animals up to $70 in adoption fees, in an attempt to discourage owners from abandoning their pets. In a country with a pacifist tradition, she can be a fighter, she said.
“If you fight for your animal, we fight with you. But don’t drop it on me,” she said.
Schnog, who denies all the complaints about the shelter, recently took The Tico Times on a tour of the facility, known as El Refugio (the refuge), which has 11 staff, including paid workers, volunteers, a veterinarian and vet assistants. Just inside the shelter’s gates, 22 dogs fill cages, many healing from wounds and surgeries, others awaiting adoption. Behind these are more cages with healing dogs and potential adoptees, a cage full of puppies and a room with a glass window full of cats pawing at the glass and lying around leisurely. All in all, there were about 80 dogs and 30 cats this day.
Hidden in the back is a shack where the refuge incinerated 1,200 dogs and cats last year – 21% of all animals taken in, according to Schnog. The year before, nearly 1,500, or almost a third of all animals taken in, were put to sleep.
The only animal crematorium in Costa Rica, it reaches temperatures of 1,500°C, and is fired up to do two cremations a week. Though questions have been raised in the past about how the refuge disposes of the bodies of euthanized animals (see sidebar), Schnog says they’re all cremated, a procedure that costs from $60 per animal for a mass cremation to $240 for a single cremation.
The refuge’s reported euthanasia rates aren’t unusual when compared to those cited by the American Society to Prevent Cruelty Against Animals, which found 60% of dogs and 70% of cats were put to sleep in U.S. shelters in 2005. The refuge’s numbers aren’t monitored by any independent agency, but are put together by volunteers, according to Schnog.
Former employees, clients and incidents in recent years have thrown doubt on the humaneness of the refuge’s killing policy.
Dr. Carlos Moncada, a vet who worked at the shelter for 20 years before his firing last December, claims the refuge killed as many as 40% of the animals taken in while he was vet, “and the majority of them are healthy animals,” he said.
But Schnog denies that more animals have been euthanized since she took over the shelter in 1991, and said her employees try everything they can to avoid putting animals down, doing so only if the animal is absolutely incurable, in pain or won’t ever have a chance for adoption.
Schnog said Moncada is trying to get revenge after he was fired, something Moncada denies.
There is no minimum stay for dogs and cats that aren’t adopted, Schnog said. How long they are kept at the shelter before being put to sleep is decided based upon the assessments of Schnog and her vets, and may depend upon demand for adoptions.
Though Schnog’s numbers say the shelter killed just over 20% of animals taken in last year, SENASA Director Vicente pointed out that “no one is doing audits,” and that in his experience with local shelters, it’s “very difficult” for Costa Rican animal shelters to kill fewer than 80% of their animals.
Putting Them To Sleep
AHPPA’s shelter is a member of the Humane Society Animal Advocates program, a loose group of shelters, clinics and activists that work against animal overpopulation and promote animal health education worldwide.
Jessica Higgins, Humane Society International’s program manager for Latin America and the Caribbean, said the society doesn’t hold its program members to any specific targets, and has not audited the adoption rates Schnog reports.
“We get regular reports from Lilian, but we don’t get investigative about it. We’ve had a relationship for a long time,” she said. The refuge receives $10,000 a year in HIS assistance.
Higgins said the refuge’s reported euthanasia rate is “not considered a bad rate.”
“You don’t want a shelter to become a warehouse, so now humane euthanasia is part of a humane shelter program,” she said.
Once Schnog or a vet has assessed an animal and decided to put it to sleep, the standard procedure is to euthanize the animal with “one of the most expensive” forms of euthanasia – an injection of Beuthanasia—and then incinerate it in the crematorium.
But Moncada says he’s seen workers inject animals with Epsom salts, a cheaper and more painful method to kill animals.
Schnog denies this.
Moncada also said employees would put especially large numbers of animals to sleep before the year-end vacations because of the costs of having to house them during a low adoption time. Schnog said that may have been a practice before she took over the shelter, but no longer.
The shelter now closes only on Christmas and New Year’s Day, she said.
Schnog said her success has made her the target of attacks.
At the heart of many of the AHPPA controversies is the basic moral question: Do you put animals out of their misery or let them struggle for their own survival?
“People that want to keep animals dragging themselves with their open wounds don’t agree with it,” Schnog said of her shelter’s policy.
Irma Vico, of the National Animal Protection Society (ANPA), said, “I personally don’t agree with putting dogs to sleep.” She conceded, however, that the issue becomes more complicated in a poor country with such a demand for animal control.
Vico’s group runs a spay-neuter operation in San Ramon de Tres Ríos, north of San José. ANPA had a “no-kill” animal refuge in Coronado that it closed down because it couldn’t handle the large number of dogs it was receiving, according to ANPA director and Irma’s daughter, Gisela Vico.
Vicente said SENASA opposes “catch and-kill” policies in which animal groups hoard animals and end up killing many of them. A policy that focuses on neutering strays is much more effective as an animal control policy, he said.
Clinic or Shelter?
The refuge’s veterinary clinic brings in the vast majority of its income, for medical services ranging from neuters to vaccinations to ear and tail cutting. Such services accounted for 77% of the shelter’s $355,000 budget last year. AHPPA charges $12 for sterilization, though Schnog may drop the price if the client can’t pay, she said. That’s compared to $50, the minimum cost to have a pet sterilized at a private vet clinic, according to Piza. He said it generally costs clients $20 just to have an appointment with a vet.
The rest of the shelter’s budget this year came from fund-raising, adoptions, pet shop sales and “various donations,” the latter accounting for $15,000.
Schnog insists she doesn’t compete with local vets.
“Ninety-nine percent of the people who come here can’t afford a vet,” she said.
Still, because her refuge offers low-priced medical attention, she claims responsibility for dropping sterilization prices in Costa Rica.
Vico doesn’t like the fact that the refuge clinic crops dogs’ ears and tails, a cosmetic procedure often done for profit that can throw dogs off balance or affect their hearing. But Schnog said she only does it because if she didn’t, dog owners would do it themselves without anesthesia. She doesn’t charge pup owners for the procedures, but charges owners of grown pets $3 for the anesthesia and suture.
Even amid the controversies, the refuge has done a lot. Last year alone, it treated more than 4,300 animals and neutered more than 17,000, Schnog says. It also makes rounds in different parts of the country with a truck to pick up strays and treat them.
The shelter recently started a program in the northwest province of Guanacaste following health concerns due to recent flooding, during which it provided 600 animals with everything from rabies vaccinations to de-worming, according to Schnog.
“Everybody that complains, why aren’t they doing something?” she demanded.
Even Moncada admits that the shelter has taken on an overwhelming task.
“The problem is overpopulation, and it’s expensive to adopt the animals.”
Problems Marred Refuge’s Start
Dr. Ana Lorena Sánchez, director of the San Rafael-Barva department of the Health Ministry, was involved in two health inspections at the refuge following health problems in recent years. But Sánchez said the problems have been fixed and there are no health concerns at the refuge.
In June 2002, Health Ministry specialist Victor Manuel Alfaro inspected the property bordering the refuge’s after neighbors complained of bad smells and insects due to improper waste disposal at the shelter.
Alfaro found an open-air heap he dubbed “an impressive spectacle” in a 2002 Health Ministry report.
It included more than 100 hypodermic needles, bloody gloves, pieces of cats and other animals among the trash.
Refuge director Lilian Schnog denied any knowledge of the unofficial dumpsite. The Health Ministry inspected her facilities again in July 2002, and found that the refuge’s garbage wasn’t being properly disposed of, according to ministry documents.
Schnog said the trash may have come from a nearby clinic and the refuge doesn’t use that many needles anyway.
She added that the trash may have been washed up on the property after a flood.
In August 2005, a drainage ditch closed up during heavy rains, causing flooding at the refuge that washed up dead animals, animal parts, and hazardous waste onto a nearby school’s soccer field.
Oscar Rodríguez, president of the San Rafael Sports and Recreation Committee, observed a “large quantity of dogs in a state of decomposition” on the school grounds.
He said a “drastic clean up” was needed.
“Some residents of the community had to start cleaning up the mess. So we filed a complaint against the refuge, and they immediately cleaned it up,” said Hilda Montero, a teacher at the Escuela Los Angeles. Montero added that since recent staff changes at the refuge, the community hasn’t had any problems with the shelter.
Schnog explained that the incident was the result of two dead dogs waiting to be cremated and the remains of other dogs buried on the site before she took over the shelter.
She said she has never ordered animals buried.
A Shelter’s History
The refuge’s roots can be traced back to Swiss animal lover Valerie Burger, who had adopted scores of stray dogs and cats in her Heredia home. In 1981, she donated her two-hectare property to the World Society for Protection of Animals (WSPA), in exchange for the London-based organization’s vow to take over care of the nearly 100 animals she had collected, according to Gerardo Huertas, WSPA’s former director for most of Latin America and now its disaster relief director for the Americas.
The original idea was for WSPA to set up a shelter that would offer the Costa Rican government a humane alternative to the drastic rabies control method instituted in the 1950s, in which Health Ministry workers would throw strychnine-laced meat to dogs on the street and inside yards, resulting in painful deaths of both strays and pets, according to Tico Times publisher Dery Dyer, who was involved in putting Burger in touch with WSPA.
WSPA converted Burger’s home into a shelter with 25 animal cages, a small clinic and a space for cats, and operated it for nearly a decade before selling to Schnog in 1991.
Costa Rican Animal Protection Groups National Animal Protector Association (ANPA)
Humanitarian Association for Animal Protection in Costa Rica (AHPPA)
Web site: www.animalsheltercostarica.com
Association for Animal Wellbeing and Shelter in San José (ABAA)
Animal Rescue Association of Puntarenas
Web site: www.geocities/rescateanimal/cr
Special Unit Association for Animal Protection and Rescue (UESPRA)
Phone: (506) 236-7516
Web site: www.uespra.org
Association El Arca de Noe
Phone: 416-4689; 813-5118
McKee Foundation, Costa Rica Training for vets, educational campaigns
Web sites: www.mckeeproject.org; www.programamckee.or.cr
Stop Animal Suffering Yes!