Costa Rica is a land of magic.
As the wheels of my plane touched down to the ground and slid over the concrete of the runway at Juan Santamaria International Airport in San Jose this past Summer, I knew that I was in for a great big adventure.
I knew I was entering into a world of untold beauty, a world of wet, lush landscapes and rolling green mountains – a world of natural life so rich and vibrant that my eyes would blink back tears of overwhelming disbelief. But also – I was entering into a world of heartache, and sometimes, even heartbreak.
I went to Costa Rica with one mission: to educate myself, first hand, about the situation of homeless and abandoned dogs outside of America – one of my greatest passions and certainly, one of the single most important reasons why I wake up everyday. My intention was to meet and photograph as many dogs as I could possibly find – all while learning each individual personality, and reading the storybooks in their eyes as every pup took a turn telling me their own unique tale. My goal was to bring those stories back here to America, and to create awareness for the devastating situations and heart wrenching tales of forgotten street dogs not only in Costa Rica, but across the world.
Stepping off that plane, I could feel my heart beating so fast behind the hold of my chest. Pit-Pat. Pit-Pat. Pit-Pat. All at once I was both bursting with joy and scared to death of the unknown journey I had ahead of me. I was there to find them. To find the dogs that had been lost through years and time.
I knew that Costa Rica, a land of unrelenting beauty and incredible culture – had a dark secret. Through my research, I learned that the homeless dog epidemic of this otherwise amazing country, was quite astounding. According to a report by the Costa Rica Star – Costa Rica is estimated to have over 1 million stray dogs living on it’s streets. Most of these dogs are skinny and diseased – resorting to tearing through garbage bags and digging through household waste in search of food and nourishment. The National Animal Health Service of Costa Rica (SENASA, in Spanish) has admitted that they truly don’t have enough resources to work on controlling the enormous stray population, and are aware that there’s a real risk of these dogs turning feral, and possibly even violent as their generations continue.
But all of my reading, homework and research could never have prepared me for the emotional impact my heart would take when I found myself experiencing this epidemic firsthand. As soon as we landed in San Jose – we hopped in a rental car and headed to our lodging in the absolutely beautiful little town of Atenas, Costa Rica. Just a few miles into our first drive on Costa Rican soil, I saw my first stray. I remember him clearly. A little black dog – a lab mix maybe – who appeared to be just a young puppy – trotting down a side street all by himself on a relatively busy road weaving in and out of fences. My heart basically jumped out of my chest – a sting of panic ran up my spine – and of course, the first instinct I had was to pull over and try to save him. After that first street dog, we passed many, many more. And as I sat in the backseat with my face pressed against warm glass, peering out into the world moving all around me – I knew there was a lot that I was going to have to learn. And I was going to have to try and brace myself for the impact of what I was about to experience.
Lighthouse Animal Rescue
I was lucky enough to be able to make arrangements for our second day in Costa Rica to be spent at a well-known rescue facility located high atop a mountain in Atenas. Lighthouse Animal Rescue
is run by Frances Jones – an American expatriate who moved to Costa Rica from Florida with her family. Upon arrival, Frances was touched by the situation in Costa Rica – and knew that she had to do something to help. A rescuer at heart (rescue is something she’s been doing most of her life – upon meeting her, I could immediately see that this was something that ran deep and true in her blood.) – Frances and her husband custom built a facility to house and care for the animals. Frances and her family were so warm and welcoming to us, that I had a bit of a hard time holding back tears. Immediately upon pulling into the front driveway, we were greeted by a one-eyed cat and a happy, bouncing goat. I said hello to them from my rolled down window before even getting out of the car. I had a feeling that within the next few hours of my experience there at Lighthouse Rescue – that I might explode from happiness. We entered the facility to more silly, wagging fuzzy faces than I knew what to do with. (For me, this was basically heaven.) Once we made our way through the facility and out into the back yard area (with dozens of cute + noisy little footsteps following our every move) – I think my heart almost kerplunked through my body and exited out of my feet. I stood there taking it all in. Mountains and valleys. Rivers and an ocean. A sky that seemed to go on forever – swirling with color and warmth. And shades of endless green that I never even knew existed. I couldnt quite believe that it was all real. I closed my eyes and breathed it all in – and proceeded to spend the rest of my afternoon in one of the most special, unbelievable places on God’s green earth.
We spent the afternoon and into the evening at Lighthouse Rescue, touring the facility and meeting and photographing the dogs. We heard each of their stories, gave lots of puppy kisses, clicked until our shutters started to ache, and did a fair amount of playing and throwing for fetch. I left there with a heart so full I thought it could burst. My mission, growing and changing with each rescuer I met.
This sweet adoptable girl is Sprinkles. Sprinkles was dumped in downtown Atenas when she was just a small puppy. Frances and her husband found Sprinkles in a vacant parking lot all alone, and just knew she had to do something to change this little girl’s fate. Once Frances was able to get Sprinkles in her car – she peed on Frances’ husband – quickly earning herself her name. 🙂 It’s hard to say exactly what breed Sprinkles is – as most street dogs in Costa Rica are mixed with the extensive histories of many mutts before them — but whatever she is, in my humble opinion, she’s absolutely perfect:
It was such a delight to meet and photograph the full cast of adoptable pups at Lighthouse Rescue. There were abundant wags and smiles for my lens every which way that I turned!:
And of course, we spent some time getting in some squishing and cuddles too.
My dear friend Ken, who was one of the few irreplaceable allies by my side on this incredible adventure, got some good head scratchin’ in with one of the resident dogs.
and some more behind the scenes type shots of what it looked like on the grounds of Lighthouse Rescue. Fuzzy, waggly butts every which way you would look!
And here she is, the face of Lighthouse Rescue – an earth angel, and a hero in my eyes: Frances Jones.
I cant describe how amazing and strong this woman is. Her passion on the inside just made her sparkle on the outside. I was attracted to that strength and spirit like a magnet.
I’m so grateful to live in a world where people as kind and selfless as Frances still exist – no matter how rare.
Those dogs love her so much. Their eyes would gleam and their tails would whip wildly – back and forth, back and forth, each time she was near.
To have earned the love of a dog is, in my opinion, one of the most telling characteristics of a pure and beautiful soul.
Frances gave me a tour of her office and a sign taped up on the cabinet caught my eye. This perfectly sums up the battle she fights everyday.
It’s significance is so poignant, that it made my heart skip a beat when I laid eyes on it.
For this is the cause that she’s dedicated her life to.
Frances was so lovely to allow me to pose for a shot with some of the sweet wiggly dogs at the rescue, to commemorate my time atop of that perfect mountain in Atenas.
Lot of squishing, kissing and cuddling!
And it was at just about this time that reality set in and I might have freaked out…..just a little.
KISSING PUPPIES ON TOP OF A MOUNTAIN IN A MAGICAL, FAIRYTALE LAND??!
HOLY BANANAS! MY DREAM COME TRUE!!!!
(i seriously thought i was going to burst from happiness. i think my squeals of ‘is this real life?!?!’ echoed all the way down that mountain…)
and a last look down at the gorgeous faces that were stuck like glue to our side for the whole afternoon….
as twilight fell upon us during our last evening hour at Lighthouse Rescue – we said goodnight to the sun with this breathtaking scene.
Then we packed up all of our gear and headed back down the mountain, towards those orange glowing lights that would guide us home.
For the next few days, our purpose was to observe and to learn – to immerse ourselves in the untold beauty of Costa Rica, and also to understand the real-world homeless dog situation a little better. Our goal was to find and to document the dogs on the streets, but not to interfere. The strays, the zaguates (free-roaming community dogs cared for by the neighborhood at large), and even the few, well-cared for personal pets were all subjects of interest to us – as we were studying and learning a culture that we were thirsty to know more about.
These are the faces of the street dogs of Costa Rica, encountered on our adventures through anywhere from busy towns to quiet, rural villages.
and a face of one of the few lucky ones that we encountered – loved and well-cared for, greeting us with a smiley hello from his fenced in backyard.
I spotted this sweet, sweet face from the car as we passed by a bar on a busy street.
He was crossing the road in a quiet, tired sort of way and as I watched, I felt my heart physically shattering inside of my body.
My eyes welled up with the type of tears that I just couldn’t help, and my amazing partner Sam and I exited the car to meet him. He was not afraid to come and say hello to us. And for this, I was wildly grateful. We wanted to meet him – to brush the dirt from his face and to translate the energy of what its really like to feel a bit of love and kindness. If even just for a moment.
When I got close to this sweet boy, I noticed something remarkable. His body was thin, beaten down and worn from the years of a life of abandonment. His mangy, unkempt fur was falling out in small chunks, and his body was riddled with ticks and parasites. I looked at Sam, and he looked back, and we both mouthed ‘oh my god’ in each other’s general direction. There must have been two, maybe three hundred ticks covering this sick and tired boy. But despite it all – despite all of that physical devastation and sadness that this dog must carry everyday – there was a sparkle in his eye. I looked at him and I was blown away. There was something there. A soul. A soul that I could see. A glimpse into the heart of this brave little dog. I looked into those big, wet eyes and I got lost in there – I fell in love over and over and over again. To me, this dog became the face of my mission. The face of my purpose there in Costa Rica. To bring to light the struggle of millions of abandoned animals all around the world. He was the face of the forgotten. He was the face of the ones who have been left behind. I thank my lucky stars every day that our paths crossed – because this dog, single handedly made my mission and my purpose in this life clear. I am here to find the ones like him – to tell their stories. To give a voice to the voiceless. As he scampered away from me, into the brush behind the broken down bar – I felt a stinging in my throat, knowing Id likely never see him again, and knowing that those eyes just changed my whole world forever.
Frances’ quote – the one adhered to the wall with scotch tape in her office – stuck with me. And it seemed perfect to describe how I feel about this dog. The everydog. The one who represents all of the rest. The weathered. The worn. The abandoned and lonely. Those are the dogs that keep me awake at night.
Sunset came just as he scampered away from me forever.
Our Adventure to Dogland
Through Frances of Lighthouse Rescue, I learned of another Costa Rican rescue way up in the mountains of San Ramon that might be able to use my help. It was about a 2 hours drive from where we were staying in Atenas. Once I did some research on Dogland – I just knew that I absolutely had to go and meet it’s founder – Helene Wirt. Our drive from Atenas to San Ramon de Alajuela was nothing short of an epic adventure. We wound up and down mountain roads, passed over bridges and by gushing waterfalls and adventured through cloud forests. Our little Toyota Yaris rental car buzzed and hummed and clunked across the terrain – my disbelief that we were actually making it across the unrelenting landscape growing with every mile. Once we arrived in the village that Dogland was supposed to be located in – we realized we were lost. We didnt know which way to go and our barely functional GPS put us at the top of a very steep hill that was made of mostly small boulders and dirt. (As a side note, there are no physical addresses in Costa Rica. Only general directions, villages and landmarks to go by to find a spot on the map. Don’t ask me how they get mail delivered to them – I’m not sure if that’s a thing that happens in Costa Rica.) 😛
We crossed our fingers and tried to forge ahead. Unbelievably, that little Yaris soldiered on – and we found ourselves by a small construction site dappled with a few Ticos (friendly slang for a native Costa Ricans) who smiled and waved at us. We asked the workers if someone might be able to give directions to the center of town – and with a warm, happy smile – one of the men hopped on his moped and motioned for us to follow him. We followed the sound of his whirring little motor, down and around windy mountain roads. At one point, we must have passed this man’s home – because a big fluffy golden retriever darted out from behind the hedges and happily chased the moped along as we all adventured in the cutest caravan you’ve ever seen together to our destination. Once we arrived at the church in the center of town, the man told us (in Spanish) to ask anyone we saw if they might know where the ‘dog lady’ lived. I was puzzled by this, and giggled at the thought of just asking strangers (in my subpar Spanish nonetheless) where the ‘dog lady’ lived. haha. But just a few moments later – we found a kind old man walking along the street and we did just that. (or I should say – my cousin Emily did just that – as the best Spanish speaker among us by far!) As soon as Emily mentioned ‘perros’ (dogs) the old man’s face lit up in a smile and he said ‘Si!!! Helene!’. ‘Everyone knows Helene’, he said, with a kind and silly grin. I giggled at the storybook-ness of it all. He knew exactly where we wanted to go.
Once being pointed up the mountain – we drove ahead. After just a few miles, we all saw it at once – Dogland!!
We turned into the big, long driveway that wound up towards the shelter – and Helene’s smiling face appeared promptly. She greeted us with such warmth – a big smile and hugs for everyone. I knew immediately that we were in the right place. We were in my paradise. Dogs everywhere. Big dogs. Little dogs. Fat dogs. Happy dogs. barking dogs. Wagging dogs. Playing dogs. Running dogs. Over 200 of them, all in big beautiful enclosures with endless amounts of room for running and exercise. I was beside myself. Looking around at this facility – I couldnt believe that it was run by this one woman. This one miracle woman who put everything else in her life aside to save these dogs. She feeds, bathes, loves and cares for over 200 homeless dogs that wait so patiently for their new families to one day come and find them. I couldn’t imagine anything more selfless.
At once, Helene began to show us around the property on an excited tour!:
(you see, this was the best kind of tour because it included lots of unsolicited puppy kisses for all of us.)
Here’s a glimpse at part of the beautiful facility at Dogland where pups are kept, snuggled into the mountainside.
This was quite an emotional journey for me – as, again – I felt my heart so full that I could barely breathe. I was incredibly whole and both so broken at the very same time. I looked around me and saw so many beautiful hearts – so many beautiful souls waiting for families that might never come, and I was in such pain for them. But at the same time, I saw so much love. The love of one woman and her devoted employees and volunteers – a tiny group of people who had come together to be the heroes in the lives of the innocent.
I cant begin to tell you how beautiful the dogs at Dogland were. Big, warm, eyes and happy, wagging smiles. I think lots of times, people have a misconception that these shelter dogs are broken. That they’re missing some piece that will always keep them from being whole, from being a perfect dog. I cant tell you how wrong that is. These dogs have a spirit like no other – a sense of gratitude and joy that I have a hard time putting into words. These are the faces of the ones who have to sit and wonder why they’ve spent their whole lives being passed over — why they were forgotten and left behind.
Weren’t they good enough, too?
At this point – Helene gave me the incredible privilege of choosing as many dogs as I wanted to meet one on one and photograph:
I was lucky enough to get a good cuddle in with this sweet, sweet old girl. Her grey face had my heart in a puddle.
Eyes like these ones stay with me forever. It’s the little images that I can never let go of. the dogs that wait so patiently. so quietly.
and some behind-the-scenes shots from my friend Ken (thanks Ken!) 🙂
below: the realities of shooting while surrounded by a gaggle of enthusiastic puppies. 🙂
sweet baby Phinneaus. (Helene let me name him!) A brand new little Miniature Pinscher puppy with his Mom watching from close behind.
And here is the lovely Helene – a woman so full of love, passion and fire, it’s hard to believe she’s real. Helene is the heart and soul behind Dogland. A woman who made the journey across oceans from a very successful life that she built for herself in native Austria, to make a new one in Costa Rica – and to selflessly devote that life, and everything she ever worked for, to the innocent and abandoned. She speaks three languages and has a heart made of pure gold. I’ve never met anyone quite like her – and she is certainly someone who I will never forget. Her spirit, energy and joy is infectious – and the love that she has for those less fortunate than her is a gift of a magnitude that humbled me beyond words. Her laugh is big, bold and completely contagious. It’s impossible not to smile when she is around – impossible not to feel like everything in this world might just end up being okay. Helene has more passion and purpose in her little finger than I’ve seen before in entire societies of people.
She’s a real life superhero.
Women like Helene and Frances are pure inspiration to me. These are my idols. You can have your Kim Kardashians, your Lady Gagas and your Miley Cyruses all day long.
THESE are the women who I believe in.
They are the champions of animal rescue – unbreakable souls that fight endlessly for a cause they believe in. Their passion inspires me to be a better person – to always fight for a better tomorrow. To never give up, ever – not even when things get tougher than you imagine. These women are heroes. Pure and Simple. And I am more blessed that I can say to have had the absolute privilege of meeting them both and having them touch my life.
And I can’t forget to introduce you to Juan Carlos – Helene’s trusty assistant and right hand man when it comes to caring for all 200+ dogs on her property at Dogland. Juan Carlos has a great big heart, and a great big smile! (even if I couldn’t effectively communicate that to him in person. You know, what with the language barrier and all.) 🙂
Next, we decided to find a location for some extra special portraits. Here we are carrying precious cargo while adventuring across a dirt road that cut through the mountains of the village, on our way to make some photo magic! I’m lucky that my friends understand and support that there are no lengths to which I would not go to communicate a message effectively.
As we slowly proceeded down the rocky road, I glanced to my left, and this is what I saw. I blinked my eyes once, then twice. ‘yup, it’s real.’
The gorgeous boy that you see in this photo below is Colin. Colin resides at Dogland and waits patiently among the 200+ other dogs for a new forever home — somewhere he can be loved, somewhere he can grow, somewhere he can proudly be the dog he was always meant to be. Colin stands in this image as the perfect representation of all Costa Rican shelter dogs just like him. He is the face of the masses – of the ones who have been left behind. And while Colin has no family of his own to love him, despite it all – I look at his eyes, and all I can see is hope. Hope for a new day. Hope for a brighter tomorrow. Hope that someday, us humans will get it right and find all of the love that we’ve misplaced. The love that we need to give back, to pour upon all these sweet abandoned dogs that we forgot about so long ago.
Maybe, if we see enough pairs of golden, dreaming eyes just like the ones on Colin – maybe then we’ll stand up together and make a difference.
After our time in the road, we climbed up to a high point on the mountainside to find the perfect spot for Camilo to shine.
A little behind the scenes of me trying to convince him to work it for the camera. 🙂
Beautiful, adoptable Camilo – showing off those sparkling golden eyes.
and a little sneaky, silliness in the grass. 🙂
Baby Phinnaeus was ready for his close up too! We found a safe, flat rock on the steep mountainside for him to climb onto and the photoshoot commenced!
a tiny little rawwwwr!
And here I am. Standing on a Costa Rican mountainside with this precious little pup – chasing down a dream. In the moment, we were scurrying to get down off the steep mountainside and I was carrying baby Phinnaeus in my arms, trying to keep him as safe as possible – I didnt think to stop for a photo – but I felt very lucky that Sam took a split second to snap this shot. Looking back on it – I cant begin to describe the gratitude that I feel. It’s moments like that one right there that I have to pinch myself to make sure it’s all real. Ever since I was a tiny, tiny little girl – I knew that I was put here to bend down to help the ones who can’t otherwise help themselves. And having that journey bring me to a place as beautiful as Costa Rica is nothing short of a real life dream come true.
To say that my trip to Costa Rica was life-changing would be an understatement. The country was absolutely everything I dreamed it would be – it’s beauty so enchanting and endless that it knocked the breath right out of my chest. Every corner I turned threatened to leave me stuck in place, weak in the knees with awe, amazement and an unprecedented sense of gratitude.The land was vibrant and rich – the mountains rolled on and on around us until they touched the Pacific. Waterfalls danced down to rushing rivers, as we passed through cloud forests and by volcanoes on every drive. The soil was warm and wet, plants bursting forward from each crack with a brilliance and vitality beyond compare. The scent of sweet honeysuckle and guaria morada orchids danced around our heads on the warm breeze. Hummingbirds fluttered across every scene – tiny and pulsing with color and life.
The tiny towns and mountain villages with rocky dirt roads cutting through them were like scenes out of a movie — fences were built with large branches, sourced naturally from the rainforests all around. Cows and horses grazed on mountainsides and I stood still amidst it all, pinching my skin to check if it were all a perfect dream.
By the end of my trip, I had the opportunity to meet hundreds and hundreds of dogs. Dogs of all shapes, sizes, breeds, ages, colors and stories. Some dogs with owners and families. Some dogs in shelters. Some dogs wandering the streets, but most dogs – lost and forgotten.It’s hard to describe the feeling of what its like to be immersed in Costa Rica’s dream-like natural beauty all around me — a land that looks like a fairytale come to life – starkly juxtaposed with the state of the homeless and street dog epidemic. There is so much beauty, and yet somehow, within the beauty, there’s also so much pain. Standing there in that mountaintop village, dirt under my feet and the most perfect shade of sky blue above my head, it was hard to make sense of it all.
On this unforgettable journey, I was met with more beauty, inspiration and hope than I ever thought possible. I met incredible people, amazing dogs, and made more beautiful memories than I ever thought possible. I crossed paths with soldiers of rescue – kindred spirits, with hearts full of fire for saving the lives of the innocent and abandoned. There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of my time in Costa Rica. That experience and those dogs changed me. Deep down in my core. And with that, I feel better and braver than ever before. There are no words to describe my gratitude for the amazing, amazing journey.
If, way down deep in your heart, you feel you might like to help fight alongside the two incredibly brave and fearless women featured in this blog post, I ask you from the bottom of my heart, to please consider making a donation to their endless efforts. While their reserves of love are never ending, I saw firsthand how costly it can be to step up and singlehandedly care for hundreds of dogs that everyone else chose to leave behind. Food, medicine, veterinary care, space, leashes, collars, fences, toys, shady refuge from the hot sun, etc all cost Helene and Frances in a big, big way. Below are the links to make PayPal donations to each of these two heroes:
Helene Wirt – Dogland (200+ dogs – Also known in Spanish as Asociación Elena)
Frances Jones – Lighthouse Rescue (link to PayPal donation in the upper left corner)
Should you be interested in making a trip to the lush mountainscapes of Costa Rica to provide some first hand help, don’t hesitate to reach out to Helene – as she is always grateful for help from anyone interested in volunteering at Dogland.
Please keep in mind that both Helene and Frances do consider international adoptions – so know that they would be happy to chat with you, might you consider rescuing a dog from Costa Rica.
‘Saving one dog may not change the world.
But surely, for that one dog, the world will change forever.’
**Special thanks to my absolutely amazing friends who support me to the end of the world. I couldn’t have done any of this without you. Emily, Sam, Ken and Doug – without your love and support, I would be nothing. You climbed mountains with me, traversed clackety old wooden bridges, kissed puppies, and followed the light across impossible terrain. You are my team, my heart, my family. You are gift to which there is no end. I am wildly grateful to have had you all by my side on this adventure. Your love will lift me up until my very last breath. I’ll never forget the sacrifices you made for me and the kindness that you endlessly doled out to each and every dog along the way. Love isnt a strong enough word to communicate how I feel about you all. Thank you for the perfect memories. Thank you for being on my side of this battle.