San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Rehabbing trained killers

From the print edition

A pit bull is not a born assassin. American Staffordshire terriers do not have to be vicious. All dog breeds, if treated right, can be gentle, devoted pets. Joana Rueda imparts these statements in a vast grassy yard. 

Rueda talks as she brings out an American Staffordshire terrier named Jota. For a pit bull to be violent, she says, the owner must turn the dog into a monster. 

Somebody turned Jota into a monster. 

After Jota was born, the breeder removed the dog’s outer ears. By eliminating the appendages, other pit bulls cannot latch onto them in a fight. All that remains of Jota’s ears are two fleshy pink bumps, as if someone took wads of bubble gum and stuck them to each side of his head. 

A deep scar runs down one of Jota’s hind legs, the most visible of several permanent wounds after a career of combat. Inside his gigantic maw, Jota is missing several teeth. 

Past owners have injected materials like steroids, testosterone or flea killer into Jota, a strategy to gear up for a fight. Some owners feed their dogs spicy chilies or sawdust – an old dogfighting trick to aggravate a pit bull before he enters a ring.

Rueda believes Jota also is deaf since he does not react to loud noises. She’s not sure if this impediment happened during a fight or at birth, but hearing loss makes the dog skittish and riskier to rehabilitate.

Jota’s tail hangs between his legs. But he shows no outward signs of aggression. He doesn’t growl or bare his teeth. He adores Rueda’s hand on his belly. He feels a scratch from Rueda’s fingers and relaxes deeper into the grass. 

Jota needs a muzzle when other animals are close, and Rueda reminds onlookers that he was trained to fight dogs, not humans. 

Rueda’s job is to take the monster out of these pit bulls and transform them back into pets.

Rueda’s husband, Hector Chaverría, and her brother, Alberto Chaves, also rehabilitate rescued fighting dogs.

Their organization, American Stafford Costa Rica, works with the National Animal Health Service (SENASA) and Humane Society International, and has rehabilitated and adopted out more than 30 dogs in the first six months of the year. In 2011, only seven of their pit bulls – a collective name for the breeds often used in dogfights – found new owners. 

The high adoption rate also indicates an underlying problem. Animal welfare officials are starting to understand how deep the problem of dogfighting runs in Costa Rica. Rueda says some 8,000 pit bulls roam the country, a disproportionate number compared to other breeds. She says the high number is a sign that there are illegal breeders mating to sell the litter to dogfighting organizers.

The government-run SENASA has little authority to stop dogfighting. If the organization receives a denuncia, or complaint, SENASA can confiscate a mistreated dog and fine the owner. The National Police can take down dogfighting rings, but arresting residents who run the lethal sport can be difficult with current animal-abuse laws.

Allan Sánchez, head of SENASA’s Central Valley branch, says they’re training police to learn how to use evidence against dogfighting ring operators. Mistreatment of animal laws only allow for the confiscation of dogs, a fine and the dismantling of the ring. However, if drugs, illegal arms or gambling are found – all common items or activities found at dogfights, Sánchez says – then detainees can be charged with harsher crimes.

SENASA plans to push anti-dogfighting campaigns (one of the ads features star Tica boxer Hannah Gabriels playing with a pit bull) to encourage more denuncias. The organization wants to increase the number of raids it does. Humane Society International plans to donate equipment to help protect police members during the busts.

Sánchez has arranged three raids this year in the Central Valley. But none have been successful. In each case, someone tipped off dogfighting organizers. When authorities arrived, they found only empty rings and discarded paraphernalia.

“How extensive the fighting is I cannot tell,” Sánchez says, “because we are just beginning to attack and break up this activity. “

The best hope exists in a bill in the Legislative Assembly that aims to improve on an animal welfare law that hasn’t been updated since 1922. Animal rights activists collaborated with lawmakers to create the new legislation, which if passed, could impose prison time for owners who take part in dogfights. The proposal also calls for the regulation of dog breeding.

The weak animal abuse law keeps Rueda on guard. She rehabs dogs in a meadow surrounded by a never-ending number of sticks to fetch, in a location she asks to remain unidentified, as Rueda worries former owners might try to take the dogs back.

The strongest pit bulls can bring in loads of money. A top fighter can earn ¢1million ($2,000) in a match. And Rueda has some champions in her makeshift kennel.

Rueda learned that a dogfighting organizer considered Jota one of the consistent winners until compounding injuries began to break down the dog’s body. 

“He was not the No. 1 fighter in Costa Rica,” Rueda says. “But he was one of the most highly regarded.”

Another pit bull named Sadam (named after the ex-Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein) has spent the majority of his 10 years in dogfighting rings. All he knows is fighting.

Sadam would salivate at the chance to attack another dog, Rueda says. 

While meeting with guests at the rehab center three weeks ago, Sadam doesn’t wear a muzzle, but Rueda’s brother holds him with a leash made out of a fireman’s hose – tough material that lets Chaves maintain control of the 32-kilogram dog built like a linebacker. 

Sadam also is missing his outer ears.

A couple smaller dogs pass by and Chaves tightens his grip. Sadam barely notices. His mouth hangs open in an enormous roguish grin. 

Rueda and her husband arrive at dawn most days to the rehab center. Chaverría works for a sports book at night to fund their venture. 

During the trip to the rehab center, they demonstrate the progress Jota, Sadam and Tuki have made. Although the latter pit bull never fought opponents in a ring, his owner had Tuki kill other animals they encountered on the street. 

Even Jota, with his lack of hearing, only needed three days to warm up to his new caretakers. 

The family sometimes carries in tow their own dogs – four pit bulls and a cocker spaniel. One of the pit bulls, Sergeant, performs as a “rehabilitation dog.” Sergeant likes to play. He’ll horse around with the rehabbing pit bulls and recognizes not to react if a rehabbed pit bull turns belligerent. The couple see him as a doggie litmus test to prove whether a dog is ready for adoption.

“Once they can get along with Sergeant,” Chaverría says, “they can pretty much get along with any other dog.” 

It takes four weeks to six months for a dog to reach a point where it can be adopted. Dogs must learn to follow commands and cannot respond jumpy when touched. The organization does castrate potential adoptees to lower their aggressiveness. 

The entire process is re-education – a dog must go from beast to pet. Yet not every pit bull can be saved. 

When a dog is put up for adoption, Rueda and Chaverría do not just hand out the animals to any one who wants a pup; the process is meticulous. Rueda grew up with pit bulls and understands them well. She comprehends when they want to be left alone or when they need to be play. 

But most dog handlers here don’t display an astute ownership of their pets, Rueda says. A potential owner of a rehabbed pit bull needs to have the same knowledge and common sense about the dogs as she does. 

“It’s not fair if we spend a bunch of resources doing an operation to seize the dog and then put him in the hands of whomever,” Rueda says. 

People that pass Rueda’s assessment do not receive the dog right away. The pit bull is “loaned” out to the owner for a trial period of six months to a year. The couple then makes frequent checkups. 

If a dog loses weight or starts to bear more wounds, the canine goes back to American Stafford Costa Rica. If the pet stays healthy throughout the trail period, they fill out papers and turn over the dog to its new owners. 

The best owners do not have other pets, but do have experience raising a dog. They also ought to have a large backyard. 

The shortage of possible pit bull adopters presents another problem. If SENASA wants to start doing more raids in the future, the group needs more places to rehab the dogs. So far, American Stafford Costa Rica is the only place to take the seized animals. 

Cynthia Dent, director of Humane Socie-ty International’s Latin American branch, said she’s looking for other possible trainers. A frequent problem with pet adoption is that at times, people are unprepared to take on the responsibility. After a short period with the dog, they return the animal. Dent needs rehabbers who are scrupulous with the adoption process.

“We cannot have X number of dogs on our hands without having an option for them,” Sánchez says. “The aim is to give the dogs another opportunity. The goal is both to give a second chance and to reduce mistreatment.”

Both Jota and Sadam no longer live at the rehab center. Tuki does, along with four more pit bulls abandoned on the streets.

Jota resides in a home with an expat who didn’t have any dogs; she was looking for a pet like Jota. Rueda approved. 

Sadam lucked out with his own placement. He belongs to a German family on a $2 million residence. The American Staffordshire terrier roams each day inside a giant enclosure with toucans, horses and chickens. 

The dog endured a decade of mistreatment and fatal fights. On the ranch, Sadam is learning a new lifestyle.

 “As we would call it,” Rueda says, “he’s retired.”

For information on how to adopt a rescued dog, contact American Stafford-shire Costa Rica at 2227-3842, email, or visit (Note: It says “Stanford,” not “Stafford,” in the URL).

To denounce a dog’s mistreatment anonymously, call SENASA at 2260-8300 or email

Contact Matt Levin at

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