When it started, it was very simple. Lya Battle was visiting an animal shelter to buy kibble for her dogs. However, she saw Diego in the shelter. Diego was a sickly dog, he was old, his body was riddled with tumors, and he was about to be euthanized. Out of compassion for this sickly pup, she adopted Diego despite what the people at the shelter telling her.
It didn’t matter to her. They thought he would pass away in a week or two, but Diego would stay with Lya and her family for four more years.
It didn’t end there. There were more dogs like Diego in Costa Rica; dogs that were sick, abused, abandoned, and homeless.
At the time, Lya had already adopted a few rescue dogs but the population of strays continued to grow, and almost every day Lya would catch wind of another abandoned dog. The problem of strays just wasn’t going anywhere. With an estimate of two million strays or “zaguates” in Costa Rica, she and her husband, Alvaro Saummet, knew they needed to do something for these zaguates.
To address the issue of strays in Costa Rica, the pair co-founded the Territorio de Zaguates or the “Territory of the Strays” in 2009. When they began, they were taking in as many as they could, but at the time they were living in a modest home, and the dogs they were rescuing quickly rose to hundreds. They needed a larger space for all these dogs and so they converted 355 acres of farmland in the mountains of Costa Rica for the sole purpose of giving these dogs a place to be safe and healthy. Territorio de Zaguates is a no-kill animal shelter and a non-profit organization dedicated to promoting animal welfare, helping strays get adopted, or providing them with a permanent home.
Each dog in Territorio de Zaguates is well cared for with routine health checks, baths, and regular feeding times. Meanwhile, dogs that have been severely mistreated or injured are taken to veterinarians before coming back to the sanctuary. With so many dogs, the workers have to trek miles up the mountain to give them the exercise they need and visitors get a chance to join them on the long walks around the mountain.
Tourists that visit the sanctuary are greeted by a horde of friendly and loving dogs and their rescue stories that provide an adorable source of joy for all visitors. But just because these dogs are friendly and approachable, doesn’t mean they don’t pose any threat. Visitors will still need to observe safety rules when interacting with the dogs. As the years went by several dogs would end up getting adopted. But even if more dogs were arriving at the sanctuary than those leaving it, to Lya and Alvaro, treating these dogs with kindness was more important than adoption.
By 2017, the dogs that were under their care exceeded 800 and today that number has gone up to over a thousand. Despite the overwhelming number of dogs, the people working in the dog shelter can still give them 24-hour supervision. Meanwhile, the sanctuary works alongside veterinarians to help make sure these dogs are healthy and happy. However, Territorio de Zaguates isn’t free of problems and hardships. For one, the government seems to have a problem with the sanctuary given how Territorio de Zaguates struggles to secure funding from the government.
They also deal with a few problematic neighbors; one of these complaints is an accusation of pollution from poop, a claim that was easily debunked by Lya and her employees. Lya also mentioned in a Ted talk how neighbors have attempted to poison their dogs and how they’ve cut their fences and water lines. However, the sanctuary also has logistic struggles because running a sanctuary with thousands of dogs isn’t a cheap endeavor. Territorio de Zaguates has to pay for dog food, yearly vaccination shots, spay and neutering, upkeep on facilities and equipment, as well as employee salaries.
Their problems do not stop there. In 2018, the dog shelter had to postpone visitor walks to meet new government regulations as well as upgrades for their facilities. Meanwhile, due to the pandemic outbreak in late 2019 and early 2020, the sanctuary had to be closed to comply with safety conditions and social distancing requirements. However, they seem to be looking to open again soon.
The sanctuary is marred with logistics issues, detractors, and saboteurs and when asked, Lya will be the first to tell you how Territorio de Zaguates is not a fancy place. She knows better than anyone the fact that the sanctuary exists in the first place is a tragedy. Because the sanctuary is a testament to the stray dog population of Costa Rica and how the dog shelter is also the repository of all the sad dog rescue stories. Territorio de Zaguates stands as a monument to poor and abandoned dogs, and with so many of them, we don’t know if it will get better.
Despite all this the people who work alongside her persevere because they know what they’re doing is important. The people of Territorio de Zaguates choose to continue their dedication because they know that dogs in Costa Rica still need help, a home, and a family. Lya and Alvaro began this journey knowing that it was going to be hard, they knew there would be problems along the way, but to them knowing that it was possible to help these dogs was enough to motivate them.
While the issue of strays in Costa Rica is a larger issue on its own, Territorio de Zaguates is an inspirational and heartwarming story. It is a story about a handful of compassionate people dedicated to helping thousands of abandoned and mistreated strays. This sanctuary was built on love and commitment unlike any other and as Lya Battle puts it:
“No matter how hard it’s been, it’s always been worthwhile. If something is terribly difficult, and it takes all you have – both materially and emotionally – but you still do it, that’s because you’ve found what really calls to you. If it were easy, everyone would do it, and if it were easy, it wouldn’t be as fulfilling.”
Today Territorio de Zaguates continues to provide shelter and care for strays and is home to over 1,200-1,600 dogs. Territorio de Zaguates, as well as the men and women who make it possible, shows that this impressive feat of animal welfare is not only possible but it also works.