It is a rare dog that wears a collar in the town of Pavones on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific coast. Those who obviously have owners even though most of the time, figuring out who it is can be a challenge. Some of the dogs here act like freelance agents looking to help out in restaurants, find shade under a coconut tree, or trot down the beach where the Rio Claro meets Golfo Dulce for some fresh water and a swim. Spaying and neutering dogs is a common practice but is not a priority for many dog owners. Surprisingly, I’ve seen fewer fights here than at most dog parks – a reminder that a dog’s testicles aren’t always the problem. more often it is the lack of space that dogs have to roam and explore.
A group of dogs regularly sneak around the compost heap in my rented house. I’m not sure where these dogs live as most of the houses are separated by pasture fields or swathes of jungle. They appear either just after sunrise or an hour before sunset. The neighborhood package consists of three non-neutered men and one woman, all of them mutt, although there are traces of Labrador and Collie and one definitely has a bit of a corgi in the background.
You are slim, careful, and knowledgeable about coconuts. Coconuts – or Pipas, as they are called here in Costa Rica, are a favorite with humans and dogs. Once a pipa is broken, dogs love coconut meat as much as humans do. It’s not uncommon for one of these neighborhood dogs to trot through the back fields with half a pee in their mouth.
Pavones is the tropical equivalent of the Maine backwoods. Everything is partly wild and that’s how people prefer it. I walk along the dirt road, past fishing boats lying in the sand and horses dozing in the shade of coconut palms to the town square. On the other side of the football field, in front of the Café de la Suerte, Julio appears homeless and abandoned as he sniffs through the bush grass.
The outline of his hipbones and ribs curl under his blackish-brown coat, and he has scars on his ears and legs from past adventures or arguments. But he’s not shy when he comes to rub his stomach and sniff my purse (sometimes I have a bag of potato chips that I like to share). He is not homeless or starving. From what I heard on the beach, he’s well fed. What he could benefit from is a break from his relentless hunt for women in the heat and possibly a dose of deworming medicine.
A Labrador trots past us and leaps over the dam with a stick between its teeth. She has a sturdy figure and golden accents shine in her rich chocolate coat. She patrols the beach almost every day looking for someone to play with her. A young surfer agrees and flings the stick into the surf. The dog does not hesitate to rush into the powerful break. I asked about the owner of the dog. The surfer replied: “I don’t know Chica. My friend takes care of the dog. The owner is out of the country and from what I hear he’s also fearless. “The lab trudges over to us and puts the stick at my feet. She’s decided it’s my turn to play.
Further down, where the beach meets the mouth of the Rio Claro, two dogs are playing the hunt. According to their part-time owner, a French woman who lives in Pavones for half a year, they are brothers. The woman explains that her neighbor will take care of her when she is out of the country. “The other brother is gone somewhere. I’m not sure where mom and dad are. “She assures me that they will show up after sunset.
Neither of them is late for dinner. She seems sure that the dogs can take care of themselves.
Not all dogs living in Pavones have that much freedom. Some are watchdogs for their owners’ properties and take walks along the miles of beach. But their sand and surf playground is open 24/7 and they are on a leash at any time of year, a luxury of rural life.
It would be easy to idealize life in southern Costa Rica, but there are risks here too. Dogs and humans live close to nature, which means that dangers are more inherent: snakes, scorpions, extreme weather. These dogs also have a distinctly wild side. In January, on the Blood Moon, a pack of dogs killed a lamb in the field outside my back door. The following night, dogs chased a cat out onto the patio and caught it under a chair. My screams stopped the hunt and the dogs dispersed; later the cat crept into the shadows. I had to assume that the dogs that made up these nighttime hunting parties were the same ones I gave scraps and stomach massages to during the day. My neighborhood package went through my back yard the next afternoon, but their wagging tails didn’t betray the killer instincts of previous nights.
In the golden hour of sunset, the beach is the destination for most Pavones residents: families enjoy the gentle break from the shore. Surfers paddle out for one last wave. Dog owners relax by the coconut trees and admire the sky as the sun melts them into a deep orange. A few dogs explore the driftwood left by the last flood, others frolic in the white water. Two of these dogs I know, Shanti and Panda. They run towards me, one chasing the other in competition for the stick. The wild joy in their eyes is unmistakable – the pleasure of freedom.