Brianna StimpsonComment

The Strays of Chile

Brianna StimpsonComment

Mankind had imposed yet another city, this time in the valley of the great Andes mountains, on top of the Mapocho river, which was once a vital blue but is now a wasting, weak brown. And with the growth of the city, the people brought--as they have for centuries--the dogs. In western culture these animals have been with us for hunting, for company, and for entertainment. They have been bred to be loyal, to depend on us, to protect and to be protected by us, the providers. I remember watching a video that hammered the point: a wolf sees two boxes, one with meat and one without. He smells the meat, and goes to the correct one in order to enjoy his meal despite what any human tells him to do. The dog, however sure that his owners are pointing to the wrong box, will dutifully follow them and remain meatless, despite all his natural abilities to detect otherwise.

In Santiago the system seemed to work, on the surface at least: almost 2 million homeless dogs were well fed, well-dressed for the weather, and cared for by the government, who issued the vaccines, and by the people, who pet them occassionally. Pure breeds of cocker spaniels, daschunds, retrievers, pugs and more were evenly split between the domesticated pets on leashes, enjoying doggie treats, and those sleeping under bridges, feeding off of scraps.

In Valparaiso the situation became more problematic. They are animals, after all, and without the same amount of trees and parks, their bathroom etiquette declined. Living with the dogs, it seemed, was more of a shared experience than one of owner/owned. Still, their tails would wag, their ears would pop up, and they would become joyously animated whenever a large pack of humans would come through. Any large group would inevitably gain a leader that continually glanced behind him or her, making sure the group was staying together. "We had a new tour guide hire," George joked, "and we told him just to follow Porkchop, because she knows the way better than anyone." Their barking and howling at night became almost comforting to me as I traveled Chile alone. Even from my bed the dogs provided what they always have--comfort, company, and protection.

The first morning in the desert town of San Pedro de Atacama I awoke to an empty courtyard. The hammocks swayed only slightly, but enough to induce creaking and crooning from the wooden posts holding the roof together. An outline appeared in the door of the hostel from out of the dust. It looked like a Malamute. Seeing me, it started taking heavy, slow steps into the hostel. Each step took all of the energy the animal could muster, and an act of faith that once the paw was down it could hold the dog's weight. After a couple of these excruciating steps, he lay down on the concrete, shaking.

The owners of the hostel and several travelers came out, and looked down on the pathetic thing. It was bleeding down its nose from a cut above the eye, and once it managed to fall to one side the dense, darkly matted fur made it apparent that it was cut deeply near its neck as well. The proprietor's dog, a cute and lively black and white puppy, sniffed around the sick dog, then sat next to it's owners waiting for a command. It was clear this dog had walked into this human residence purposefully, knowing that we humans could provide water, shelter, and care.

Someone mentioned calling a professional, but then the cleaning lady came out with a mop and started pushing at the injured dogs face. After a few moments the dog managed to stand up, but with it's head hung low it tried to go left further into the hostel. The cleaning lady realigned her broom so that the dog was forced to head back outside, rejected by the humans that had created him, leaving a trail of blood behind. All talk of calling a hospital was dropped. The dog belonged to no one, and he was no one's problem now.

I went back in my room to put shoes on until they cleaned the blood up properly. Once back in the courtyard my traveling friend, a cheery, optimistic girl from London looked at the loss on my face and tried to comment. "That's not something you want to wake up to," she said.