San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

When bark turns to bite

From the print edition

TAMARINDO, Guanacaste – Dennis Peterson wields a machete. Susan Adams used to carry mace, but she exchanged it for a big stick. Judy Colombo used to bring an oar, but she recently upgraded to a metal car jack. The U.S. expats, who live in Playa Langosta and Tamarindo in the northwestern province of Guanacaste, are all victims of recent dog attacks. Now when they walk their own dogs, they don’t take chances. They take weapons.

Adams owns an 8-year-old shar-pei named Suntzu who has been attacked more than 10 times. “Taking my dog for a walk is like taking it into a war zone,” she said. “Our neighborhood is overrun with unneutered male dogs.”

Adams once attempted to rescue her dog from an American Staffordshire terrier running loose on the beach, and the terrier bit her leg. Peterson and Colombo were also injured by the same breed of dog in the act of defending their own pets.

Although pit bulls, American Stafford-shire terriers and other dogs with common ancestors have been outlawed in U.S. cities including Miami and Denver, there is no law against keeping one in Costa Rica. Most people in Tamarindo don’t consider the problem to be with the breed or even with individual dogs. It’s with the owners, they said, who don’t take basic safety precautions to prevent senseless fights. For instance, owners fail to neuter the dogs, leash them, keep them locked up or behind fences, ensure they get proper exercise or train them to respect a master.

Local veterinarians said they are receiving more dogfight victims than ever, and the wounds are sometimes gruesome. They’ve treated pets with holes to the neck, ripped and hanging skin, lost teeth and even kidney damage. Countless cases have required stitches. Some dogs have died of their injuries.

Tamarindo veterinarian Wendy Orozco estimated that she treats about one canine fight victim a day. “The problem is getting worse,” she said. “The quantity of dogs has increased, and the dogs we are seeing more of are the kind that require a very responsible owner.”

Dog Attacks 2

On any given day in Tamarindo and Playa Langosta, unleashed pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers, as pictured here, and other guard dogs run amok. Local veterinarians say they are taking care of about one canine-fight victim a day. Courtesy of Dennis Peterson

On Ash Wednesday last year, Colombo was walking her two dogs – Dante, a mutt, and Kalila, a mini black lab – when she noticed her neighbors were also on the beach. Colombo saw the neighbor’s pit bull swimming in the water with a large chain around his neck. As she struck up a friendly conversation with the neighbors, the pit bull approached. Then he lunged at Dante.

A panicked Colombo moved to break up the fight, and that’s when the pit bull sunk his teeth into her arm and flipped her into the water. She got up, looked at her arm and saw the bone. One of her neighbors let her borrow a shirt to use as a tourniquet and helped her get to the emergency clinic in Huacas, where she received two-dozen stitches.

The neighbors agreed to pay Colombo’s medical bill, but the pit bull’s owner – who asked to remain anonymous – also said Colombo was in the wrong. “The broad put her hand down between two fighting animals,” he said.

That’s a common sentiment among the guard-dog owning faction of Tamarindo:

Never interrupt two dogs fighting, regardless of whether a bigger, more agile dog is killing a weaker pet. They seem to subscribe to a dog-eat-dog philosophy that’s convenient for somebody who owns, say, an American Staffordshire terrier.

Owners of American Staffordshire terriers are also fond of explaining how their dogs are not pit bulls, owners of attacked pets said. Yet American Staffordshire terriers are bigger and stronger than pit bulls, and have similar ancestry.

“There are cases of dogs that need to be killed because they are very aggressive,” said Tamarindo police officer Jorjan Mena. “But sometimes the owners still defend them.” Mena hasn’t taken many reports of dog attacks – but it’s not because they aren’t happening. “People reach settlements with each other,” he said. “The owner [of the dog that attacked] pays for medicine and treatment.”

One man who has filed a police report is Dennis Peterson, wielder of the machete, who now goes by “Machete Pete.” Peterson lives in Playa Langosta, down the street from an American Staffordshire terrier named Blue. Several weeks ago, Peterson was walking his two old dogs, Tess and Chumash, a mutt and a Basenji, early in the morning, when Blue came around the corner. “He saw Chumash, and went for her,” Peterson said. “I was screaming at the top of my lungs.”

Blue tore at Chumash’s neck and ran circles around Peterson, entangling him in the leash, cutting his ankle and eventually toppling him. Peterson’s interference gave his dogs a chance to escape, but Blue ran after them. “He was crazy, trying to get at us,” Peterson said. “I went and got my machete.”

That’s when Blue’s owner showed up and asked what Peterson was doing.

“I’m getting ready to kill your dog,” he told her.

Blue’s owner is an Italian woman who co-owns a shop in Tamarindo. The Tico Times paid a visit to the shop, which did not go well. Upon learning the nature of the story, Blue’s owner began trembling. “He never killed anybody. He never put anybody in the hospital,” she said of Blue. She also said that it’s normal for dogs to attack other dogs, and that there’s no law against one dog biting another. Asked if she understood why Machete Pete might be upset that his dog required dozens of stitches and was pooping blood for a week, she responded, “I could take care of expenses. I apologized for him. The dog didn’t die.”

The night before the attack, Blue had gotten out of the house, she conceded, but she said she normally walks him on a leash and keeps him locked up. “I raised him with my kids,” she said.

Neighbors tell another story. In the past month, three area residents have contacted The Tico Times and told similar stories of how Blue attacked their smaller weaker pets, including the shar-pei owned by Susan Adams, who also was bitten by Blue. The owner’s response to that incident: “That was three years ago. She tried to divide the dogs, and that’s why she was bitten. She didn’t need any stitches or anything.”

In May of last year, Kristina Tigue was walking her 1-year-old Rottweiler, Rai, near the Surf Club in Playa Langosta. The club is across from Blue’s house, and the dog came running out and clamped down on Rai’s neck. Tigue said she began screaming and kicking Blue, and finally he let go. Tigue got between the two dogs and continued screaming until a teenage boy came out of the house, retrieved the dog and apologized.

Although Rai didn’t need stitches, he did have holes in his neck that required a visit to the veterinarian. “It was terrifying,” Tigue said.

Tigue didn’t file any reports or ask Blue’s owner to pay for the visit  – she didn’t want to go anywhere near Blue’s house again. But Peterson is taking action. When he reported the incident to the police, he said he was told that carrying a weapon is his best bet. He also plans to file a denuncia, or formal complaint, against Blue with the National Animal Health Service (SENASA) and the Health Ministry, but he doesn’t expect that to go anywhere.

According to Iliana Guevara, coordinator with SENASA’s Animal Welfare Program, when attacks on dogs are reported to SENASA, authorities visit the dog and owner to see if rehabilitation is possible. If the behavior continues, the dog may be euthanized on a second visit, but “much depends on the evaluation of the case,” she said.

Many complaints go nowhere, and many that should be filed are not, as there are aspects of the process that deter people from filing. Paperwork must be delivered almost an hour away to Santa Cruz, and residents said the process is pointless because it only results in someone coming to check on the dog. The check occurs weeks after the fight, in the dog’s home.

In small beach communities like Playa Langosta and Tamarindo, residents don’t like to get into arguments with their neighbors. Everyone lives in the same town, and that town also happens to have a reputation for a lack of police enforcement. That’s actually the reason there are so many dogs in the first place.

Home invasions have become so common in Tamarindo that people feel compelled to own guard dogs to protect their property, many residents said. “We live in a place with absolutely no law enforcement,” said one American Staffordshire terrier owner. “There are people here who will stalk you and learn your every move, then come to your house with guns and put your family on the floor. Then they’ll take everything.”

That owner said he was robbed three times before he began looking into a “super security system,” but one day on the beach he met a kid selling a young guard dog, and that seemed like a better option. “I will never be robbed again because people know I have this animal,” he said.

For security reasons, the number of pit bulls, American Staffordshire terriers and mixes including these feisty breeds has soared. But it’s an increase that has owners of docile dogs and parents of young children feeling ever less secure.

When Steph Gough moved to Tamarindo two years ago, she loved that there were so many dogs around.  But lately, she’s not so sure. On a recent walk with her 6-month-old daughter in a stroller and her Weimaraner, Tucker, on a leash, a bull terrier ran out of his home and attacked Tucker. Eleven stitches later, Tucker has recovered, and Gough has been talking to many neighbors about how she can keep her family safe.

Friends are always giving her the don’t-interrupt-the-dogfight speech, but she can’t help but wonder: “What if it were my daughter?”

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