Man’s best friend

1 Jul

It’s estimated that there are 2.5 million stray or ‘street’ dogs living in Chile at the moment, with half of those in Santiago alone. Many of these animals are unwanted pets and their offspring who have lived their whole life as strays and others are considered to be pets but are allowed to roam the streets and return home when they feel like it.

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Chileans have a live and let live attitude towards these dogs who they believe have the same right as humans to share public spaces. Animal cruelty is not tolerated and in fact locals will often offer dogs a scratch behind the ear, fetch them a bowl of water or offer them some food. We’ve even seen some locals carrying around dried dog food especially for their favourite strays.

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Occasionally, they will become territorial and fight amongst one another but in general the dogs are mild mannered, laid back, often very cheeky and exist in perfect harmony with humans. One naughty and stubborn Golden Retriever we encountered walked right into the coffee shop we were in, wagging his tail and then sat down refusing to move. Two waitresses tried to evict him bribing him with tit-bits and pushing his backside towards the door but the dog thought it was one big game as he ran under tables and between legs to evade his pursuers.

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Some dogs can can look a little ragged but more look well fed and groomed. The dogs are extremely street smart and know their patch like the back of their paw.

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We’ve seen dogs waiting for the green man at crossings and hanging around supermarkets and cafes to ambush you as you leave with bags full of goodies. If you look them in the eye or show them any kind of interest in them, they’ll follow you for hours.

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It’s very common to see dogs lying asleep everywhere – some look like they’ve been shot, lying on their backs with their legs in the air, just twitching. We’ve often seen them charging down the street with a determined, fixed look in their eyes like they know exactly what they’re doing and where they’re going.

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In 2008 a stray dog in Santiago became a overnight internet sensation when he was captured on motorway surveillance cameras risking his own life dodging fast-moving cars and trucks to pull his buddy who was laying motionless in the middle of the road to safety. The Chilean TV station who broadcast the heroic event were bombarded with offers to adopt the dog but unfortunately they couldn’t track him down after the event. It’s true that the stray dogs in Chile often hang around with buddies – sniffing each other, chasing cars together, breaking open rubbish bins in search of food and generally getting into mischief. There were some unusual combinations of dog ‘pals’ – large, small, dark and light – there was no discrimination and anything went.

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Despite all of the amusement and affection the dogs have given us, this is obviously a huge problem for Chile and one which is getting worse. Charitable organisations in Santiago and Valparaiso are taking some steps to protect the dogs by providing shelter, food, medical care and also by offering limited sterilisation programmes in an effort to reduce the numbers of strays on the streets, but more needs to be done.

The Chilean government don’t currently see this as big problem as in 98% of cases the animals do not carry the rabies virus and are not a threat to the population but local people need to be educated on how to care for their animals, be encouraged to consider adoption programmes and to recognise the value of neutering and vaccinating their dogs.

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After experiencing the stray dog problems in Chile first hand and having felt the love offered by the dogs, we were really touched by a recent story featured on BBC World News. The O’Connor family from Seattle in the United States spent 8 hours in Valparaiso after their cruise ship docked here and as they posed for a family photograph in the harbour they were photo-bombed by a dog they affectionately named Chile and who followed them around for the rest of the day. When they arrived home the O’Connor family couldn’t get this lovable canine out of their heads and paid a local animal charity to track down Chile Dog. Once he’d been found after a month-long search the family spent 2,000 USD bringing him home to Seattle where he eventually arrived on 28th May 2013.

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It’s very difficult as a traveller to be able to help in a big way given that it’s likely you’ll only be in a place for a short amount of time but small steps such as offering a dog some water or food or volunteering at an animal sanctuary can go a long way. By raising the awareness of this growing problem it’s also hoped that the government and the people of Chile can also take steps towards a better, happier future for ‘man’s best friend’.

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