San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

National Service Works for Welfare of Animals

The National Animal Health Service (SENASA) is only two years old this month, but it has a staggering workload keeping tabs on animal welfare issues, ranging from red tides affecting fish on the Pacific coast, breeders of cats and dogs, slaughterhouses and avian flu.

“The time has come to introduce humanity to nature,” said veterinarian Yayo Vicente, SENASA’s general director and former head of the Veterinarians Association and veterinarian for the Health Ministry’s environmental department. “The trend toward being more humane goes back to the industrial revolution, the abolition of slavery and child labor and, later on, the declaration of human rights. Global warming has made people really think about humane treatment of nature.”

And that includes animals.

“Costa Rica was one of the first countries in the world to consider humane treatment of animals. In Tico bullfights, the bulls are not killed, even though Ticos share the same heritage as Spain and Mexico. Cockfighting was banned 100 years ago. The use of strychnine to poison stray cats and dogs was stopped 35 years ago, and five years ago wild animal acts in circuses were ruled illegal,” Vicente said.

It is also illegal for people to keep wild animals as pets without permission from the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), which grants permission in cases of  injured or disabled animals that cannot be returned to the wild.

Though SENASA has a heavy workload, at this point the agency is still defining and refining Law 8495 covering animal health, establishing specifics to make it possible to enforce the law. For example, the law prohibits import of animal material if there is a risk to the environment or human health.

What kind of risks? Does this include invasive species? And what would you do with them? Such points need to be defined.

SENASA is under the Agriculture Ministry and grew out of an earlier agency oriented toward rural issues.

“We are now getting into urban issues,” Vicente said. “Educating the public is a very important part and a big challenge. People migrate from the country to the city and bring their habits with them. Their dogs run loose and they keep roosters that crow at dawn.”

Cockfighting also comes under the scrutiny of SENASA, which has closed several galleras (cockpits) where roosters were trained and housed. Vicente estimates there may be 200 mostly clandestine sites where cockfights are held. Though the activity is illegal here, the influx of migrants from other countries where cockfighting is common has brought about a resurge, according to Vicente.

Roosters are confiscated and put to sleep because they are aggressive and trained for fighting. For Vicente, this is a greater punishment for the owners than fines.

Dogfights are not found in Costa Rica, he added.

Breeders of dogs and cats will also have to comply with laws to ensure the health and well-being of their animals. Those who overcrowd their animals or fail to provide decent housing, food or care will not be certified to operate and will be closed down.

Here, too, educating the public on choosing a puppy or kitten is important. SENASA wants the public to help by reporting breeders who risk the health of their animals to its office at 2262-0221 or to the National Association for the Protection of Animals (ANPA) at 2258-7332 so that action may be taken.

Some of the issues under SENASA’s scrutiny are scary for the public, such as diseases in animals for human consumption.

“There are many strains of avian flu,” Vicente explained. “Most are not contagious for humans and those that are have not been seen in the Americas. But there is a danger of diseases affecting chicken farms.”

In Costa Rica many chicken farms are located near each other, facilitating the potential spread of disease.

One of SENASA’s biggest achievements to date is in the slaughterhouses, where animals must be provided with food, water and space and be rendered unconscious before being slaughtered. Inspectors on the premises make sure the laws are adhered to.

“Education is a big challenge for us,” explained the 53-year-old veterinarian in his office adorned with animal figures and engaging, colorful pictures of dogs and fish painted by his father. “First, we must educate the public, enforcing the law only in extreme cases. Right now we don’t have enough people or cars and the laws are not specific enough.”

SENASA currently has 400 employees but hopes to expand to 600 by the end of the year, Vicente said.

Even so, being a watchdog over the nation’s animal welfare is a tremendous job.

Law 8495 can be viewed in Spanish and English on SENASA’s Web site at Article 6 lists the general points.


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