Stray’s Anatomy

Dogs are man’s best friend, except when they’re everywhere. Michelle Stoler recognizes the problem with street dogs in Chile.

Chile’s Viña del Mar does not look like a typical city in a developing country.  It hosts a large casino, its McDonald’s offers free wireless internet, and condominiums and resorts sprawl along the clean beaches of the northern part of the city.  The city looks like many other upscale cities, with one minor detail that gives its poverty away: dogs are everywhere.

Sure, in college courses we talk about malaria and lack of public infrastructure, but no one mentions dogs as a third world problem. And let me tell you: they should.  Dogs chase people down the streets for having funny scents. Dogs leave dog crap everywhere. Dogs dig through garbage and leave what they don’t eat in the street.  When you’re not used to seeing this many dogs, you don’t realize what a bother they can be.

In Viña del Mar, a news publication recently reported that dogs now represent one third of the population of Viña.  I’m not surprised.  As I walk the twenty-minutes to my job teaching English, I concentrate mostly on not running into other people on the streets, not stepping on dogs, and not stepping in dog crap.

Why are there so many dogs?  Simple: because here, dogs have balls. In the U.S., the Humane Society has a successfully encouraged owners to spay and neuter their pets, cutting down on unwanted animals and making training easier.  This is not the case in Chile.  First, pets aren’t “trained.”  They are mostly left outside, they tend to jump wildly when exposed to people, and no one pays them much attention. Second, pets here are left in their natural state because the loss of reproductive abilities is seen as shocking.

Economically, the procedure is expensive, and there is very little disposable income here.  It’s seen as a silly choice to spend the money on a pet. They’re are rarely considered “family members” the way many American pets are, and such a waste would be inconceivable. (But oddly enough, many pet dogs can be found wearing doggie sweaters.) If a family can no longer afford to take care of a pet, it’s not uncommon to leave it in the street or to deliver newborn puppies to a local plaza to become perros callejeros — street dogs.

I suspect that there are also underlying social reasons for the lack of neutering. Especially in a Latin American country where machismo is rampant and a male’s value is marked by his virility, it’s seen as a crime to “castrate” one’s pet.  Removing an animal’s male parts is seen as stripping him of the foundation of his masculinity, and an unfair act that ultimately denies the animal his dignity and pride.  Just as unfaithfulness can be an indication of one’s masculinity and superiority, dogs are similarly granted the right to procreate without social responsibility.

As a result, dogs are everywhere.  There is one dog that lives nearby who only has three legs. I call him Tripod.  He dwells in a cardboard refuge created by the local liquor store owner, but Tripod is one of the lucky few who has man-made street shelter. I reckon that his pathetic condition probably helped him to score his sweet pad.  The other dogs that live on the hill are condemned to sleeping in garbage, alleys, or storefronts.  For a city that depends on a strong tourism industry in the summer, I’d think the city would try to encourage spaying and neutering pets to cut down on the number of unwanted animals and their unwanted smells and excrement.  Still, I’ve yet to see any successful campaigns to reduce the street dogs.  But I guess it wouldn’t be so bad to be a street dog — at least they don’t have to wear doggie sweaters. 

Michelle Stoler lives in Chile, where she spends most of her time trying not to look like a gringa. She enjoys making up false identities to strangers and has an uncanny ability to guess what time it is.