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Monday, March 13, 2017

The Refugio

Saving animal lives in Costa Rica

When Lilian Schnog’s attorney husband decided to move his family from the Caribbean island of Aruba to Costa Rica in 1986, it was culture shock. Having lived her whole life in the former Dutch Antilles and growing up on the island of Curacao, she only spoke Dutch, had always lived near a beach and had a young son to raise. Her husband, however, had purchased a parcel of land in the lush rolling hills of San Rafael de Heredia just north of the capital San Jose. It was both beautiful and lonely for Schnog.
Adoptable dog at The Refugio. Photo by AHPPA.

While adjusting wasn’t easy, she discovered that five minutes from her new home was a tiny dilapidated animal shelter. It was small, it was outdated, but it provided help.

“I started volunteering in 1991,” Schnog says. Volunteering at the shelter became a way of connecting with her new country. After five years, she asked her husband if they could pay off an existing debt that prevented the shelter from expanding. With his blessing and encouragement, she paid off the debt and took over the shelter.

Formally known as the Asociancion Humanitaria para la Proteccion Animal de Costa Rica (AHPPA), the shelter is called The Refugio by locals because of the respite it provides to the region’s homeless animals. Lilian Schnog is the shelter’s President and Director and the driving force that makes it one of Central American’s most progressive shelters.

The shelter goes where it is needed. Photo by AHPPA.
“Back then the shelter had some run down cages and an operation room in very poor condition,” she says. “Now over 20 years later we have a very professional operation room where we receive students from foreign countries who practice in our facilities.”

Located northeast about 45 minutes from the Costa Rican capital of San Jose, visitors will find a quaint little mountain town nestled in the Heredia canton. San Rafael is just nine miles from the nearest major city, Heredia, and sits on the slopes of the Cordillera Volcánica Central. Home to coffee plantations and hiking trails this tranquil hillside town has fewer than 30,000 residents. It is also home to untold numbers of stray dogs and cats foraging for food and shelter.

Schog says 20 years ago residents allowed their pets “live” on the streets. Many newcomers like herself assumed the animals roaming around town were homeless. That wasn’t the case. Owners often turned their animals out in the morning and then let them back inside in the afternoon, not just dogs and cats, but even cows and horses. Now residents are aware that providing for their pets includes a safe place for them to stay at all times. Although numbers from a recent survey are not in yet, Schnog says that the stray population has dropped drastically over the last decade. She says her new challenge is to change attitudes about neutering.

“[The] most important issue is that people start neutering their pets in time, not after the first litter,” she says.

Dr. Luis performs surgery. Photo by AHPPA.
Creatively using resources is how the shelter has thrived over the years and one of the shelter’s biggest programs is the Spay and Neuter Clinic. The Refugio is able to provide low cost and no cost spay and neuter surgeries along with other veterinary services by having student veterinarians and techs volunteer at the shelter. The shelter even provides limited housing for visiting students. This program helps everyone involved. The students get needed experience with a practicing vet and locals receive needed medical care for their pets. The shelter now performs 40 to 50 cat and dog neuters per day.

To work for the shelter, medical volunteers must be fourth or fifth year vet students in order to assist the shelter’s resident vet, Dr. Luis, with surgeries. Third year students can be accepted as volunteers in the clinic, but will be unable to assist in surgeries. Students may also travel with Dr. Luis for mobile surgery clinics around the country to help provide these services to poorer rural areas. Again this program not only provides experience for the students, but helps rural communities around the country reduce the stray animal population. Students do need to provide proof of their level of study, which can vary by school and country. Visit the shelter’s website to learn more about these opportunities and how to apply.

Vet students assist with spay and neuter. Photo by AHPPA.
The organization also needs help from citizen volunteers, but these volunteers cannot work in the medical clinic. However, they are valuable in helping keep the shelter clean, caring for resident animals, performing shelter maintenance and working with the public.

Although much has changed, Schnog says Costa Rica is still a third world country in many ways. Financial help is difficult because animals are far from the top of the country’s social issues list and the AHPPA does not receive any government assistance. In fact, The Refugio helps the Costa Rican government to take care of its K-9 animals. To help with funding, the AHPPA has an annual “Mutts Party” and does receive monetary assistance from the Humane Society USA/International, the Wallace Foundation and the S.B.A. Holland. Private donations then make up the difference.

“There still is a huge need to better the situation, especially with educating the people,” she says. “Their idea of having a pet is so much better, but we are still far from getting people to understand that shelters are not the solution for their unwanted pet or puppies.”

Volunteers help the shelter. Photo by AHPPA.
Although the shelter takes any opportunity to adopt out an animal, Schnog wants travelers to be aware adopting can be difficult for foreigners. The paperwork is complicated and the process takes up to five days for animals going to the US, about the length of a typical vacation. For European visitors, the process can take several months. The best way visitors can help the shelter is through monetary donations or by volunteering. Visit the donation page to help.

For Schnog, a 2009 recipient of “Extraordinary Commitment and Achievement” award by Humane Society International, all of the progress the shelter has made is more important to her now than ever.

“My husband has always backed me in my volunteer work. He passed away in the year 2010 and the animals gave me the power to go on and keep me going,” she says. “I love what I am doing.”

The shelter is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. and Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Check their Facebook page to learn more about adoptable animals and events.

Adoptable cat at the shelter. Photo by AHPPA.