A Series Set in South America
This morning I saw eight on the way to school. The first, as usual, blocked the sidewalk as I rounded the corner out of my driveway. The second was lying under a tree outside the panadería, lazily nosing its matted hind legs. The next three chased my longboard 50 meters, barking in response to the sound of my wheels over the breaks in the concrete.
When foreigners in Chile meet other foreigners, there is a pattern to almost every conversation that follows names and countries of origin. We first talk about the difficulty of speaking Chilean Spanish, a dialect riddled with slang, contortions of grammar, and strange pronunciation. Then the food, which, like the language, conforms to almost zero stereotypes typical of Latin America. Then almost invariably, the street dogs.
Almost two million dogs live in Chile, close to 200,000 in Santiago alone. These dogs account for a massive living force, weaving through traffic, rooting through garbage cans, occupying benches, and defecating on the streets. Like citizens, the dogs go about their business, waiting to cross the street with us at the corner and lying on the beach on sunny days. They have become as much a part of the built environment as their predecessors might have been in the wilderness. Many appear to be near pure breeds, huskies and German shepherds that would sell for hundreds of dollars elsewhere; here, putting a price on a dog seems outrageous. It’s true, some street dogs are technically owned dogs allowed to run the streets but, as it is unusual to vaccinate or sterilize pets in Chile, the distinction seems negligible.
Despite the lack of vaccination, it is at first difficult to understand what kind of problem the street dogs pose to us, aside from their massive presence. Unlike rats, they don’t chew wires, and unlike dogs in other parts of the world, dogs in Chile rarely carry diseases transferable to humans, and at least in my town, very few become aggressive.
According to Chilean president Michele Bachelet, the existence of these dogs points to inequality: proof that the country as a whole lacks the resources for adequate veterinary funding, and that education about spay and neuter practices is scarce. In my own experience, the dogs serve as a more complex indicator of inequality as well: in wealthier cities, even dogs appear robust and well fed, and it isn’t unusual for a passerby to stop and offer a pat on the head, or toss them an affectionate greeting. But outside the cities, in smaller pueblos, the dogs are skinnier, more scabbed. Bachelet addressed this problem after taking office (for the second time) this March, by including the issue in a list of 50 measures for her first 100 days in office. In June of 2014, she announced a free sterilization program which will, when implemented properly, offer veterinary services to all Chilean dogs and cats, owned or strays. In addition, the program intends to educate pet owners on proper and conscious care.
There are several organized groups in Chile set to alleviate the overpopulation problem, especially in underdeveloped cities, where dogs can suffer from painful diseases and parasites, and few resources are available to help them. These organizations range from small, local programs to large, national groups. Often they work on donations, vaccinating and placing stray animals, as well as advocating for stricter laws regarding animal abuse and ownership.
One night, I walked down to the beach with a friend from the University in order to stretch and talk away from the city. As we sat, a small Labrador puppy approached us and quietly curled in her lap. She pet his head and continued talking, and by the end of the conversation, we were both thinking about how to take him home, even though she was flying home soon and I was living in a tiny third-floor apartment. I told her about an article I had read about an estadounidense who fell in love with a stray dog while visiting Valparaíso on a cruise, then employed the director of Red de Defensores y Rescatistas de Animales in Santiago to find him and send him back to Washington.
I can only imagine how ridiculous this must have seemed to many locals aware of the situation– a stunt crazy enough that it could only be concieved by a gringa. However, I sympathize with my friend’s desire to form a bond with one dog of many, to feel at the same time like she is solving a problem and taking with her a small thread in the fabric of this society.
All photos of stray dogs in Chile courtesy of Amy Burkel.