On the outskirts of San Jose, Costa Rica, lies a life-changing sanctuary for dogs called The Land of the Strays. Also known as Territorio de Zaguates, The Land of the Strays is essentially the dog-heaven your parents always told you about, except these pups have been giving a second chance at life.
This privately-funded dog shelter has a strict no-kill policy, meaning that they always choose to preserve a pup’s life if they are healthy or treatable. It means that they are prone to acquiring more dogs than they should, but this shelter has found some ways to ensure that every one of their 1,500 dogs gets the care and attention they deserve.
Queen of the Strays
Meet the woman behind this amazing initiative, Lya Battle, who has worked tirelessly to realize her dream. Over eight years ago, she decided to devote herself to helping the unfortunate canines of Costa Rica. Lya had actually been taking in stray dogs before and bringing them into her home.
In fact, it wasn’t until she had over 100 doggies living under her roof that she said she needed a better solution. She asked herself, “Am I the one that has to keep all the dogs that I find? I’m not going to put them back on the street.” And there the idea of a no-kill shelter had come to her.
An Ever-Growing Canine Population
Lya decided to use a large farm that she inherited from her grandfather to house these desperate strays. It started off as an unofficial shelter for her to keep the ever-growing canine population. “Injured dogs would continue to show up and I felt compelled to help them,” she admitted.
But taking in a stray didn’t just consist of giving him some food and a roof. “They had to heal, be taken to a veterinarian, be spayed or neutered, and offered a new home,” Lya revealed. It was becoming a whole facility that required her to leave her teaching job.
Investing in the Infrastructure
When Lya first established the unofficial shelter, it was pretty bare bones. That being said, some basic infrastructure was put in, much of which came from recycled materials or repurposing. As we can see below, the pooches have an outdoor space to lounge that’s shaded from the sun.
Over the next few years, she would add features to her sanctuary to better serve the strays. Territorio de Zaguates built warehouses to store the huge amount of dog food they go through, sectioned-off parking spaces for the containers that come to dispose of animal waste, and three tanks for water storage, among other things.
You would imagine that feeding time at the shelter would be quite chaotic. With over 1,500 dogs, how could you ensure that they all have access to enough food? Well, Territorio de Zaguates has come up with this ingenious way to fill each and every belly.
Their dry food is poured all along a long concrete trough, where they can easily go up and fill their bellies to their heart’s delight. After spending their whole lives fighting to survive, they’re finally allowed to relax and don’t need to stress about when they’ll have their next meal.
…But Nirvana Ain’t Cheap
The dogs at this shelter are so happy that they don’t even need to fight each other to get to the food bowl. But filling so many bellies comes at a hefty cost. In a single day, the pups consume 13 66-pound bags of dry dog biscuits.
All that food comes to around $894 for just one day, and that’s not including medication costs. With a shelter that’s as every-growing as this one, the costs to maintain the essentials for the strays are daunting. Luckily, Lya’s not alone in footing the bill.
Much Needed Donations Continue To Save the Day
The first 400 dogs that came to the shelter were paid for out of Lya and her husband Alvaro Saume’s own pocket. They even took to selling some of their own possessions in order to financially provide. She has said: “I have lost material things, friends and liberties that I once enjoyed very much.”
Lya continues, “I’ve been okay and I would do it again a thousand times, because if I’m able to change the life of an animal, any headache will be worth it.” Thankfully, she has set up a donation system so people can be a part of the cause. Now they wholly depend on donations to cover the food, medical bills, and everything in between.
You Can Bring Your Own Dog for a Play Date
With such a huge number of excitable pooches, the shelter loves having volunteers and visitors to help out. People are encouraged to come and help walk the dogs among the 378 acres of gorgeous mountain land. The doggies always like have people to race with.
You’re even allowed to bring your own dogs to the farm so they can play with the strays. It’s clear that this shelter truly prioritizes the happiness of their dogs above all else. Lya even dreams of one day building small cottages on-site so people can stay for longer when they visit the dogs.
A Best Friend for Life
Adoption is an important part of maintaining the shelter. The goal is for the dogs to find their forever home with a family who can love and spoil them. After all, they’re not undesirable or inferior to other dogs, and no one understands this better than Lya.
She says: “I never understood why some people didn’t like strays. These dogs are survivors, champions of life and streets.” Adoption would mean they have comfort and security for the rest of their lives, as well as a “pack” to be a part of.
Unique Dog Breeds
Lya understands that some people are put off adopting a shelter dog because there are many mixed breed pups. But she encourages people to see them truer to how they really are: a unique breed of dog.
“Some people dislike them because they aren’t a specific breed,” Lya claims. “So I thought I had to use the word zaguate (stray) to name the place and somehow assign pride of ownership to the term.” These pooches are one of kind.
Managing the Population
Spaying and neutering the dogs that come into the shelter is important work that they take very seriously. It’s necessary as it prevents bringing more dogs into a life of neglect or mistreatment. The shelter tries to make as many people aware of the benefits of sterilizing your pets.
In 2019 they wrote: “Sterilization is an effective way to prevent a miserable life, avoiding unwanted pregnancies and decreasing undesirable behaviors like aggression and marking indoors. It also reduces the likelihood of testicular, ovarian, uterine and/or mammary cancers.” In informing as many people as possible, they are hoping to be part of the solution in managing canine populations.
The Best Form of Stray Dog Prevention
There are many stories about puppies living hard, and unfortunately short, lives on the street due to unwanted dog pregnancies. “All this suffering is unnecessary and can be avoided by spaying and neutering animals before they reach their reproductive age,” the shelter teaches.
But they can’t do all the work. They acknowledge that it can be a challenge for some owners to spay or neuter their beloved dogs, but it’s almost always due to the pet parents’ own psychological reasons. But dogs don’t need to experience motherhood or fatherhood, as so many people believe.
The Hardest Dogs to Rehome
One thing that the shelter is used to seeing is that people who visit aren’t usually interested in adopting one of their senior rescues. But they’re just as lovable and in need of a family. They wrote on social media that, “Most people walk into our shelter trying to find either breed dogs or puppies to adopt and don’t even consider the cute, loving senior dogs we have around our shelter.”
Older dogs have the hardest time finding a new home, but there are benefits to adopting a senior good boy or girl. Puppies are a longer commitment and require “more time, energy, and patience to train them correctly.” That and the fact that nothing beats the love and gratitude they give to their new mom and dads.
Giving Everyone an Identity
With over 1,500 dogs on-site, it can be easy to get lost amongst the mix. That’s why Lya and her team make sure to give each and every stray dog a name when they first get to them. Part of the reason for doing this is so that he or she should have a name they can respond to.
But it also provides something else. It gives the dog an identity that, in many cases, is something they experience for the first time. They give the strays the opportunity to be their own entity. We have no idea how the caretakers are able to remember all of them!
How To Name a Stray
You’re probably asking yourself how the caretakers come up so many names for so many dogs. They revealed that they don’t just call them something arbitrary – as that will be easily forgotten. They draw on what they know about the dog’s history and personality.
They write: “For us all dogs are unique and special. That is why we make sure that each furry little friend has his own name, and that it corresponds to a part of their past, personality, characteristics, and their fighting spirit for overcoming the difficulties they have experienced along their way.”
Winning Them Over
When a dog first arrives they’re not thrown into meeting the whole pack at once. It would be altogether too shocking for them to feel safe, so they are put through a process. First, a stray dog is kept in a separate section of the shelter to acclimatise to the change.
Slowly over as many days or weeks as it takes, the dog is introduced and exposed to other rescues in the facility. It can take anywhere from one to two months until they’re fully settled in with the rest, and sometimes takes even less time for those who are coping really well. The more love they’re given, the quicker they are to trust their surroundings.
A Day in the Life of a Caretaker
As well as volunteers, the shelter has a handful of trusted caretakers who uphold the day-to-day tasks. They start work at six am when the pups are full of energy and raring to get started on another fun day. As expected, they’re never left to work alone!
Chores include bathing the dogs, tending to their nails, feeding them, cleaning up poop, and of course, taking them for walks. Their number one concern is the safety of the pups, so they need to be around them throughout the day. Luckily, they love it.
Many People’s Idea of a Dream Job
Alexander Rodríguez is one of the caretakers working at the shelter, and he’s shared his experience of what it was like to join the Territorio de Zaguates family. “At first it’s kind of shocking to be here because there are too many dogs,” he admitted, adding that “then you get used to being with them, you pet them and you end up winning their trust and affection.”
For Alexander, it’s fulfilling work: “I really like being with them because dogs deserve a lot of support, here we take care of them, we give them love, we go out for walks around the property and play, you have a lot of fun with them.” It’s truly is a job like no other.
Several Hundred Wagging Tails
One of the best parts about working at The Land of the Strays has got to be when the entire shelter goes for their daily walk in the tropical mountains. It’s a sight unlike anything we’ve ever seen, where hundreds of dogs are the happiest they can be as they roam free among the natural landscape.
They race each other, play fight, explore the landscape, and roll in the mud – all under the watchful eyes of the protective caretakers. That way no one is lost from the pack and everyone returns back to the shelter safely.
Someone’s Always Got Your Back
With so much mountain land to cover, the dogs can get pretty tired along the way. But thanks to the visitors, volunteers, and caretakers who accompany them, the dogs are never left to suffer alone.
There are breaks in the walk where everyone can sit and catch their breath. And since volunteers and caretakers accompany the pack, they can always rely on someone else to carry them if they get fed up! There are always helping hands on-site.
Survival of the Fittest
Part of what is unique about stray dogs is just how strong they have had to become in order to survive. As a lot of the “zaguates” are the product of mixed breeding, they are less exposed to hereditary diseases and ailments that often accompany “pure” dog breeds.
On the other hand, they are also extremely independent. They have had to fight for their lives on the streets where only the strongest can survive. The shelter says “if they have lived on the street they know how to handle themselves.”
Strays Have Stronger Immune Systems
As well as having less risk of acquiring hereditary diseases from inbreeding, stray dogs are thought to live longer and healthier lives due to the conditions they were born in. Territorio de Zaguates writes online that, “A street mother will give it’s newborns immunity and antibodies that will help them survive.”
Not all puppies born on the streets end up surviving, but the antibodies are still passed from mom to pup. They continue: “It is this immunity that the mother inherits to her pups that protects the zaguates of diseases and adversities they’ll find in the streets.” And who wouldn’t want extra protection for their precious pooch?
The Best Hike of Your Life
Located about an hour away from downtown San Jose, people are encouraged to join one of their long walks to get to know their rescues. They’re completely free and require no booking in advance, only that you turn up at nine in the morning to start the nature walk on time.
The main reason the shelter organizes these walks is to allow for prospective dog owners some time to get to know the pups, and maybe strike up a special bond. The walk lasts three hours, with several breaks so you can sit and spend some quality time with the dogs.
They’re Both Remote and Accessible
It’s not located in the city center, but that fares much better for the 1,500 rescues. The Land of the Strays is over an hour away from San Jose in a very rural village. In fact, people who visit often talk about how it feels as if you’re in the middle of nowhere.
But the shelter does its best to make it as accessible to the public as possible, as they need as many adopters as they can get. They have their own shuttle bus from the city center that takes you directly to them for $6. But it’s possible to take public buses on your own for only a couple of dollars.
Where They Come From
The main place they’re finding these stray dogs is in the streets of Costa Rica. Not only because many were born to stray mothers who had not been sterilized, but also because so many people choose to just abandon these precious pets.
On their website, the shelter clearly asserts what their statement is: “Territorio de Zaguates is a ‘No-Kill Shelter’, a dog sanctuary where we do not believe in euthanasia as a solution to the problem of abandoned dogs in Costa Rica.”
Never Giving Up
The shelter’s mission is find homes for all the dogs. Territorio de Zaguates shouldn’t be the final stop for any of the canines in their care. But for many, they will never be that chance to find another family. Luckily, the shelter refuses to send them back on the streets. They call themselves: “A temporary home for hundreds of puppies looking for a second chance.”
But they acknowledge their other role: “We are also the permanent home to many others who may never find their own family.” The shelter is aware of the fact that some dogs simply won’t ever be chosen, so they will live out their lives on the farm. It puts the shelter under strain, but luckily they’re just as adored by the caretakers.
The Impossible Dog
There was actually one particular dog that made Lya reconsider what her shelter’s stance would be on dogs that couldn’t get adopted. The dog was Oso, which means bear in Spanish, who “opened our eyes.” She admits that he was “very cute but he was very stubborn and misbehaved.”
Lya remembers that “when people came to see all the dogs for adoption, the first one they noticed was handsome Oso.” But it wasn’t so simple. “Everyone wanted him, and they’d take him home, but return him soon after.” Apparently, he went through seven different families who brought him back to the shelter.
Reevaluating Oso’s Needs
Oso had even gotten himself hit by cars four separate times! Lya called him a “crazy escape artist” to try and explain his peculiar ways. “Oso was the biggest headache in the world. His options were either getting out back on the streets, or into a shelter where he’d probably be put down eventually,” Lya revealed.
But Oso’s stubborn personality gave Lya and her husband Alvaro a revelation. “It was then when we realized that there isn’t a place that will hold dogs indefinitely, one without an expiration date.” And that’s where Lya wanted the Territorio to be different.
The Shelter Isn’t Perfect
Despite all the good they do, The Land of the Strays definitely has room for improvement. Vet care is scarce and most stray dogs are in need of it, meaning that some dogs have to wait before they can get the treatment they need.
Unfortunately, the government doesn’t provide any assistance. The shelter is left to provide for their dogs completely on their own, and through the generosity of others. That is why they encourage people to donate whatever they can to their cause.
The Infrastructure Needs Improving
Another area that the shelter is trying to improve is their infrastructure for the dogs. There is a lot of land for the pups to run around on but not much space that is sheltered from the elements. On cold or rainy nights, the dogs have to squeeze together in the covered areas.
Luckily, food is not something they have to worry about. The shelter is lucky enough to receive very generous donations from dog food companies who want to see them with full bellies. It saves all the dogs a lot of hardship that comes from being underfed or worrying about your next meal.
Gratitude Beyond Compare
What do you get with a rescue dog that you don’t get with others? Territorio de Zaguates believes stray dogs experience far more gratitude for the care and attention they receive. “When you adopt a shelter dog, he knows that he is getting a second chance to live better,” they tell their followers.
They continue: “It must be incredible for a furry little friend to go from living on the streets or with irresponsible families, to living with a responsible and loving family that shows it that second chances do exist.”
Lya’s Soft Spot for the Least Appreciated
When Lya was a little girl, she counted toads, snakes, and spiders among her favorite creatures due to the lack of attention they would receive. “I was the weird little girl at school who always did things differently than others, and who grew up with a love for animals,” She recalls.
But it’s not surprising she grew up with more empathy towards animals than many of those around her. She was born and raised by a British-Canadian biologist and a psychologist from Costa Rica. Clearly, that was a big influence in her life.
Lya’s Dreams of Cottages
One of Lya’s biggest dreams for The Land of the Strays is to build small cottages on the two-acres of land. “I dream that someday we can build cottages for people to come to visit and stay awhile. Imagine the fun of a vacation where you can choose dogs to snuggle up with while you stay,” she excitedly elaborates.
But cottages would provide more than just an fun little getaway for out-of-towners. “I’d also like individual houses for each of the live in caretakers, and assign to each their own mini family of senior dogs to live with and look after as seniors so desperately need.” Essentially she dreams of making the older dogs’ lives ever better. She fantasized: “With projects such as these, Territorio might even become self-sufficient.”
How Social Media Transformed the World of Animal Rescue
The Land of the Strays acknowledges how much social media has aided dog rehabilitation, and not only for them. Nonprofit animal rescue organizations often spend all their budget on operational costs, which are usually very high. Usually, there is no money left for advertising or fundraising.
They admitted to their Instagram followers that, “Before social media, our efforts went unnoticed behind anonymity.” But the rise of social platforms has allowed for a far greater outreach than they could have ever imagined. “Now we have a platform which allows us to share our message and mission with thousands of followers who’ve become our #TerritorioTribe.”
The Last Resort
Euthanisation is often an integral part of how animal shelters manage their population. But at Territorio de Zaguates, they try everything to prevent it. Lya explains: “I will never euthanize a dog, unless he is suffering, and there is no way to relieve that suffering.”
She continues: “If he is disabled we’ll look for a chair; if he can only move his eyes and can eat, we’ll feed it. If that dog is going to live the rest of his life with us, he has to enjoy it.” And their care extends to those who don’t have long left: “If he only has two weeks to live he will have a good time too.”
It’s Not Their Fault!
While for the most part the dogs at the shelter are friendly and social, some exhibit initial agressive behviors towards strangers that approach them. Precaution should be taken by visitors who go up and pet the dogs.
It’s not that the “aggressive” dog takes a disliking to you, but more because they are probably scared. Some of them may have experienced trauma in the past from people, which can trigger their survival instinct and cause them to behave unpredictably. Still, these moments happen rarely.
A Caretaker’s Eye-Opening First Day of Work
One of the caretakers, who the shelter refers to as “guardians,” remembers being spooked by some of the dogs that were getting riled up. They recall: “I went in to work and a dog fight broke out and I got so scared that instead of helping my coworkers I jumped on the fence.”
Now, that caretaker has been working at The Land of the Strays for almost four years. Clearly, the aggressive outburst wasn’t enough to spook them from the job. In fact, it’s just part of life at the shelter. Sometimes some of the dogs get riled up, and it’s the caretaker’s job to try and diffuse the situation and keep everyone else safe.
The Beloved Guardian
One particular guardian has grown especially important to the rescues at Territorio de Zaguates. Juan Isidro Bravo was a farmer from Nicaragua before coming to work here four years ago. The shelter wrote about him that “There is not a minute of the day in which this man stops caring and giving love to each member of the pack.”
According to the shelter, the dogs wait for him to come in to the farm every morning. But even with several hundred dogs to greet and cuddle, there are a couple for whom he has an especially soft spot. He has a special bond with dogs Bimba and Chancha, pictured above.
Time To Level Up
You might imagine that with over 1,500 dogs being fed generously every day, they’d have a lot of excrement to properly dispose of. And yes, they have a lot of poop on their hands… quite literally. Particularly in 2019, however, they pooled together their resources to try and come up with the most ecologically friendly way of managing the dogs’ waste.
They have been investing thousands of dollars in new infrastructure to treat the huge amount of excrement at their refuge. “It requires a lot of earthwork, excavation, and sewerage, redesigning the shape in which the water naturally flows through the property, reconstructing and improving the existing infrastructure, increasing multiple septic tanks, and ensuring that we do not have to worry about them,” they informed their followers.
It’s Dirty Work But Someone’s Gotta Do it
However, until the new infrastructure is in place, it’s plain old scooping poop that the caretakers need to carry out. “Each morning, our staff recovers all the [poop] of the front.” They use wheelbarrows and shovels to collect and transport the excrement to a separated on-site location.
The waste is collected by a separate company via a truck, which in itself is pretty expensive. It costs the shelter $3,800 per ton, which they pay monthly. It’s not a side of their organization they talk about a lot, but it’s an integral process that takes up a lot of man-hours and eats away at their budget.