Volunteering at a Costa Rican Shelter Changed My Idea of Vacation

Volunteering made me realize how easy it is to give back to a local community while taking advantage of the sites and experiences a country has to offer.
By: Ralph Quinonez
Author with rescue dog

As Nico charged down the trail toward the river below, I barely hung on to his leash. I slipped and slid down the narrow, muddy path trying my best to keep up and avoid a fall. Finally, reaching the bank of the river, Nico pulled me in to join his shelter buddies who were already frolicking in the water and getting relief from the tropical Costa Rican heat.

I had accompanied Alvero, a shelter worker for Costa Rica Dog Rescue, on an afternoon walk with a group of rescued dogs. After a strenuous uphill hike in the lush, rural countryside we had come to the end of the trail.

“Do you want to keep going?” Alvero asked me, knowing that because of the heat most volunteers opt to turn around and head back to the shelter. “Sure,” I replied, not wanting to appear weak. So, we headed off the path into a dense jungle and down the narrow, single-track trail toward the La Fortuna River.

That was my first day of dog walking duty as a volunteer with the rescue group in La Fortuna, Costa Rica. I was hot, tired and felt lucky that both my ankles were still intact. But watching the group of dogs frolic in the river, enjoying some respite from their life at the shelter, made it all worthwhile.

Costa Rica rescue dog

As most visitors to Costa Rica, I had come for adventure. My vacation was a short seven days and mountain biking, hiking and swimming were on my to-do list, but I also wanted to visit at least one rescue group working in the country, which is estimated to harbor between 1.5 to 2 million stray dogs.

As a documentary photographer, my long-term project is to document the plight of street dogs around the world and the people that work for their behalf. A quick internet search led me to the popular tourist town of La Fortuna and Costa Rica Dog Rescue. Here, I figured, I could have the best of both worlds—I could mountain bike around the famous Arenal Volcano and also spend a few days volunteering and photographing the animals at the rescue.

The rescue was founded and is operated by Scott Alan Bradley, a chef who owns two popular restaurants in La Fortuna. Bradley’s home, the shelter and his Gecko’s Waterfall Grill make up a compound resting in a rural area just minutes from town (his restaurants of course, are dog friendly). 

Costa Rica Dog Rescue relies heavily on volunteers for its daily operations and has rescued over 150 dogs since its founding. For a donation of $25 dollars a day, volunteers are able to assist with the daily care of the shelter animals, which includes feeding, bathing and walking the 70 or so dogs.

Although Bradley employs two full time shelter workers, he values the work of volunteers to help socialize the dogs and prepare them for adoption.

“We work on psychological help for the dogs. [They] are rehabilitated here prior to adopting out,” Bradley says. “They get used to routines like feeding and walking [with volunteers].”

On my second day as a volunteer, I had the opportunity to help with a group of abandoned puppies that had been brought to the shelter. Dr. Gabriella Quesada, who has a clinic in La Fortuna and volunteers at the shelter once a week, was conducting health screenings on the pups in the shelter’s makeshift exam room. Working with Daniella, another tourist/volunteer from Argentina, we rounded up the pups and brought them in one by one to Quesada for examination. As Kaylee, a shelter worker, gently held the pups, Quesada examined the rescued dogs and screened them for diseases such as Parvo.

Once their medical exam was complete, Daniella and I were tasked with giving the puppies their first bath. Using the afternoon heat to our advantage, we simply used a garden hose and bucket to wash the pups, not having to worry about them getting too cold. A quick towel dry and they were off again playing in the grassy shelter grounds.

Volunteer bathing rescue puppies

Our last duty of the day was to take some of the larger dogs for a walk. As Daniella and I headed out into the nearby trail, I thought of how this dog walking experience shouldn’t really be considered a “duty” at all. It was more as if the rescued dogs were walking us while showing us the beauty of their home in the Costa Rican countryside.

After walking several groups of dogs, our volunteer day was over and we settled in to relax in the adjacent restaurant. Sitting at the bar, I sipped on a beer as Bradley and I discussed his vision for the rescue.

“We’re building a surgery room for volunteer vets,” Bradley says. “One day I would like to have a community vet center. If the poor people can’t afford it, they can pay by volunteering.”

Later that week, I got to bike around the Arenal Volcano. I also hiked down to the famous La Fortuna waterfall. But the highlight of my short stay in Costa Rica was spending time with the rescued dogs at the shelter. As little as I did, I felt I had given back something to the community.

As tourists, we often don’t think about what negative impact we might have on the local culture, infrastructure or native wildlife. Volunteering at the shelter made me realize how relatively easy it was to give a little something back to the local community while taking advantage of the sites and experiences the country has to offer.

I also realized that paying to volunteer not only helps support the shelter, but also helps promote the welfare and humane treatment of stray dogs in the area. Everywhere I went—be it a restaurant, a bar, or my hotel—the friendly people of La Fortuna would ask “What are you going to do while in town?” and when I told them of my volunteer work at the shelter it would always elicit a smile.

Walking rescue dogs in Costa Rica

Many people I spoke to were already were familiar with Costa Rica Dog Rescue, but many were not, so my quick explanation of the work they do and the need for animal welfare in general also served as a learning tool. Hopefully, these interactions will help illicit a cultural shift to the better treatment of dogs in places like La Fortuna.

Volunteering at shelter like Costa Rica Dog Rescue takes no special skill or training, just a love of dogs and a willingness to donate a little of your time. As Bradley says, “We do dog walking, attention and love. I’m not an expert, I just rescue dogs.”