Costa Rica’s Heredia province is an idyllic part of the world, what with its green grasslands, rolling hills and dramatic scenery. Being such a lush setting, then, it’s perhaps no surprise that the area is home to a multitude of wildlife. However, it’s strangely herds of dogs rather than sheep that roam these pastures.
Yes, perched in the region’s Santa Bárbara mountains is a different sort of animal sanctuary. Known as the Territorio de Zaguates, or “Land of the Strays” in English, the canine paradise is home to over 900 dogs.
And their daily romp is more of a coordinated en mass playtime in what might be the largest doggy park in the world. But rather than living out the rest of their natural lives roaming the hills in tight-knit feral packs, these strays are aided by the organization in charge of the property to find human forever homes.
Still, the place itself is a pretty sweet set-up. After all, at night the dogs have access to state-of-the-art shelters. The modern facility includes feeding and bathing stations and is full of cozy bedding for the dogs to get some much-needed rest after a long day of exploring.
What’s more, fresh water flows regularly into troughs placed strategically around the site to ensure that the dogs are kept hydrated in the glorious Central American sunshine. This is certainly a sanctuary that embraces free-range living as a means to improve the strays’ overall demeanor and health, and thus their adoptability.
Unconventional as it might be, the doggy haven was opened in 2008 by founders Lya Battle and Alvaro Saumet. As with all shelters in the country, the privately funded organization has a “no-kill” policy, and much of its work focuses on finding the dogs loving homes. Still, those in the sanctuary are just a tiny fraction of Costa Rica’s estimated one million stray dog population.
In an interview with the Daily Mail, Battle described her motivation behind opening the shelter. “I would often come across dogs on the way home. Those that looked in need of help I would take home for as long as it took to nurse back to health, sterilize and find families for,” she said.
Of course, the volunteer-run Land of the Strays already has dozens of puppies on the property already. But it also neuters or spays all of the dogs it takes in before placing them up for adoption.
And to avoid certain breeds and mixes being overlooked by potential adoptive families, the sanctuary takes an unusual stance on breed names. Jokingly, Battle has said that it’s for their egos. But it’s not clear if she is referring to the dogs or the people adopting the dogs…
As part of their naming tradition, then, the sanctuary celebrates the unique characteristics and personality traits of each pooch. They aren’t shy about coming up with cool names either.
Furthermore, in celebration of the dog’s unique heritage, the sanctuary’s animal experts decipher which breeds are present in a mutt before coming up with an imaginative name to best describe it. So while a Labrador or a poodle may sound nice, it doesn’t quite have the same ring as an Alaskan Collie Fluffyterrier or a Fire-Tailed Border Cocker.
“Many adorable dogs [are] overlooked and turned down because they simply lacked desirable qualities,” Battle told the Daily Mail. Therefore, she has found that giving the mutts stellar and original breed names improves their adoptability.
Otherwise, normal adoption for animals with complications is difficult. “[They’re] too big, too old, too energetic, too lazy, missing a limb, missing an eye. I realized then and there that these wonderful animals had few chances in this world,” she said.
Another unique feature of the sanctuary is that people are welcomed to visit, even if they aren’t looking for a new four-legged friend. In fact, visitors are encouraged to take advantage of the once-in-a-lifetime experience of strolling across the countryside with a herd of dogs. And, of course, stopping and playing for a while.
In scenes that could be described as a dog lover’s paradise, videos from such visits show dogs and humans skipping merrily over hills and fields. Their delight is clear in the accompanying laughter, chatter and, naturally, barking.
Even more good news is that the hikes are completely free. However, for those who can, and want to, the sanctuary encourages donations of dog food or money to help with the $300-a-day cost of feeding the pooches.
The popularity of the place seemed to be boasted after the Costa Rican daytime TV show Buen Día featured the sanctuary. In fact, the show screened a segment in which artists depicted the sanctuary’s one-of-a-kind breeds to highlight their special features.
Within a matter of hours, then, both the show and the sanctuary’s Facebook pages were inundated with comments wanting to find out more about the distinctive doggies. The shelter’s work inevitably went viral and even inspired a nationwide ad campaign.
Plus, the attention Territorio de Zaguates received led to many more adoptions. For the first time in a long time, it seemed that mutts were becoming fashionable and many owners of mixed-breeds began to showcase their special blends online.
The sanctuary now welcomes visitors from across the world and has adopted dogs to places as far flung as Panama and Florida. The sanctuary’s Facebook page has almost 250,000 followers too, most of whom undoubtedly echo Territorio de Zaguates’ motto. That is, “When you adopt a mutt, you adopt a unique breed.”