Among the myriad of problems one can find when moving to Costa Rica, there is one that takes longer to notice but it is no less serious: pets. Ticos consider and handle pets in a totally different way than Americans and not at all better. Pets are considered an optional responsibility by Tico pet owners. Therefore, should a pet do something that could be considered a nuisance or a threat to the health or safety of others, many Tico owners attribute it to the animal’s nature and accept it as such, disregarding any social norms or respect for others.
Being normally a subject of quarrels between neighbors –— rarely reported to the authorities because culturally, pets are considered free creatures by nature — Tico pet owners allow their animals to bark, poop, run around and bite whoever and wherever, and everybody has to be OK with it because they are only animalitos, as they call them. “They do not know any better, pobrecitos!”
This ignorant attitude and lack of responsibility towards proper pet handling escalated to a level where Costa Rica was accused of violating human rights after police officers allowed the mauling of a Nicaraguan citizen by two rottweilers in 2005. The mauling happened in the presence of eight police officers. Athorities say the person was a burglar, but witnesses said he was a homeless person with permission to sleep an the auto repair shop located inside the property where the mauling took place.
The victim, 24-year-old Natividad Canda, was entering the property, when the two guard dogs took him for an intruder and attacked him in front of the property’s security guard. Since the man was not a paying tenant but a poor person who had been allowed to use the repair shop to sleep, the guard felt that defending the man or disciplining the dogs was not a big priority, according to later court testimony. His lack of action caused a lengthy public blood feast with neighbors, policemen, firefighters and a video camera surrounding the scene. Because the owner of the property did not allow the authorities to shoot the dogs, they did not! The man was bitten 200 times as a result and bled to death.
The inhumane incident opened two cans of worms that Costa Ricans had been concealing for decades: The open xenophobia and hate crimes against Nicaraguans and the lack of control and regulations concerning pets.
Due to the fact that no extensive or formal laws had been created for the proper handling of pets due to the cultural ignorance on the matter, the trial that followed the brutal murder favored the defense. The judges decided the dog owner and policemen should not spend any time in jail or compensate the victim’s family monetarily, claiming that there were no standard procedures for the policemen to follow and save the man’s life at the time, and that they believed the man was breaking and entering to steal.
Costa Rica was even accused internationally for human rights violations for this and other hate crimes against Nicaraguans, but there was insufficient evidence to sustain inhumane treatment specific towards Nicaraguan citizens. It is interesting that after the dog incident was videotaped in its entirety and plenty of witnesses attested that the man did not enter the property to steal — as authorities had said — the Inter-American Court of Human Rights found all that evidence to be insufficient.
Even though the case is now being appealed, the fate of the wrongdoers is in the hands of a system that is still in diapers concerning animal control. However, the case was big enough to stir the pot and wake some people up about the seriousness of regulating pets in the country, and now some actions have been taken.
After this and other pet-related homicides and serious injuries occurred, the state created the law for having dangerous animals, which defines dangerous breeds and prohibits their reproduction, among other guidelines, punishing their owners with fines, exterminating their pets, or in case of homicide, jail time. The criminal code was also updated, and now articles 130 bis, 229 bis, 385 and 398 regulate crimes involving pets.
In light of this regulatory progress, victims of less serious — but not less important — issues regarding pets, such as barking, feces accumulation and potential biting threats have been coming forward to the authorities, hoping to get regulated by a more comprehensive law. The latest addition to pet control measures is the Law 15460 for regulating pet control registration, which details the norms to follow for veterinarian clinics, pet shops and pet owners. It is unclear if this law has been approved yet, but at least it is another step forward.
Problems typically suffered by expats in rural properties consist of neighboring animals (dogs, cattle, cats) breaking and entering, defecating and destroying property, as well as contaminating the expats’ animals when not cared for properly by their Tico owners, or, even worse, attacking the expats and their families. What expats complain most about is that even after talking to the pet owners repeatedly, the owners fail to control their pets because they think that foreigners are too finicky and make big deals out of everything, not knowing that by ignoring the problem they expose themselves to be legally sued. The criminal code penalizes pet owners for property damages with fines, taking away the pets, and with jail time if personal damages or homicide is proven. Moreover, the pet control and registration law states that pet owners are responsible for any damages done by their pets to any neighbor property.
Expats are not the only ones complaining, though. Some Ticos also have reported neighbor pet incidents. Common complaints have to do with neighbors caring for pets as spoiled children, letting them run freely on the street or in buildings not suitable for animals and letting them bark, jump on, threaten or bite anybody that passes by, expecting the scared and annoyed person to find it funny because they are just animalitos.
Some Ticos consider leashes an unnecessary restraint and muzzles a cruelty. They get into arguments or even fights with people who defend themselves against wild pets. A Tica was recently sued for animal abuse after she sprayed mace on a neighbor’s dog that was about to bite her. At the hearing, the judge ruled in favor of the defendant because the owner had let the dog run freely with no leash, which is considered animal negligence by the dangerous pet law and it is punished with jail time after failing to comply with a formal warning. Other complaints include feces left around properties or the neighborhood, which is penalized with a fine of an amount equivalent to a Costa Rican minimum salary.
Excessive unsanitary conditions and barking can be reported to the ministry of health. Investigators can penalize owners with fines or by taking away the animals.
In general, all cases are determined by their circumstances, and their resolution depends on the integrity of the judge, but following the right steps is crucial when reporting pet problems:
If you live in a condo,
1. get as much proof as possible of the problem (pictures, video);
2. report the problem to management in a formal letter and provide evidence;
3. if the complaint is neglected, consult with a lawyer;
4. report the problem and the condo’s neglect to the authorities.
If you live in your own property,
1. get as much proof as possible of the problem (pictures, video);
2. write a formal letter to the neighbor, providing evidence;
3. if the neighbor ignores the request, consult with a lawyer;
4. report the case to the authorities;
5. file a lawsuit.
Taking the actions above will save victims a headache and will tilt the scale in their direction. Judges respect proper procedure and behavior and have less room to justify an unlawful decision on their part if proper protocol has been followed. Moreover, a case well conducted by a plaintiff has a better chance of having success after an appeal if the initial trial court ruled against them.
By continuing reporting neighbor-pet problems, both expats and reasonable Ticos may gradually change the primitive pet mentality of Costa Rican culture, transforming it into a country with fewer pesky pets and owners.