The Plight of Chilean Strays

SANTIAGO – A stray dog lazily lounging in the middle of a busy street as pedestrians rush past taking care not to disturb it, a cat slowly sauntering across a food stall in a market – these are remarkably ordinary sights in Chile where stray dogs and cats roam city streets in record numbers. CT´s Kateryna Kurdyuk visits a Chilean dog shelter and zooms in on the situation of Chilean stray dogs.

Due to a lack of dedicated governmental involvement, a national agency or even a large scale NGO to monitor or manage the population there are millions of stray dogs and hundreds of thousands of stray cats in the country. The absence of comprehensive sterilization of strays, or even pets, exacerbates the situation.

New initiatives are being introduced, but on a relatively small scale. Meanwhile, shelters and rescue groups are working relentlessly to help as many strays as they can with limited resources in the hope that a national consciousness shift leads to more donations, volunteers, foster homes and adoptions.

Who are the Chilean strays?

A Chilean street dog, well fed, friendly and calm, an image that many in Chile are all too familiar with. In every street, in every park or neighborhood there is a pack of resident dogs. Chilean street dogs are extremely savvy. It’s common to hear stories of a dog riding a bus to the park or intelligently crossing the street once the light turns green.

Visitors and tourists are often told that Chilean dogs are well-fed, rabies-free, dressed in handmade or make-shift sweaters for winter and given care by the community where they live. These are the community dogs that Chile is famous for.

Currently, Chilean law actually differentiates between a stray dog and a community dog. A community dog is defined as one without a specific owner, but in the care of a group of people that provide basic care. While a stray is one that is kept in a public place without control or consistent care.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

Chileans are proud of the fact that their stray dogs are looked after by the community and not rounded up and put into kill shelters; and strict methods of population control by the government have been met with large public protests. Nevertheless, and even though Chilean community dogs are better off than strays in more developing countries, this idyllic picture is not exactly correct.

While it is true that many dogs in well-populated areas are often supplied with food and water, as well as cardboard boxes as beds and sweaters for winter, very few receive proper veterinary care, almost none are sterilized and many live short and stressful lives.

Not to mention the strays that wind up abandoned by their previous owners, living on construction sites,  getting struck by cars, being tortured by people, or otherwise finding themselves in unsafe situations.

Although there has not been a case of rabies in Chile for decades, stray dogs can still spread disease, bite humans or attack pets. In Santiago dog parks, whispered rumors can be heard between local dog-owners of aggressive stray dogs mysteriously disappearing from the area after any public incident.

Their suppositions are that the dogs are either secretly relocated or more likely euthanized, despite there not being an official elimination policy in place. The rapid population growth of strays in Chile is a growing cause for concern, even for the locals who care for them.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

Population Control

The stray animal population in Chile is on the rise due to lack of sterilization, an underdeveloped culture of managing stray animals, irresponsible pet ownership and the lack of governmental or institutional participation which leads to social ignorance regarding the issue.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

In Chile, there is currently a dog or cat for every 5 human inhabitants, in comparison to Europe, where the rate is one animal for every 10 human inhabitants. The estimated stray dog population is between 2.5 to 3 million individuals. In the capital of Santiago alone that number is roughly 1.9 million stray dogs. Due to an absence of any official count, these numbers are simply rough approximations.

Then again, as the issue of a growing population becomes more serious, public awareness and government involvement have been on the rise. 55% of Chileans consider the growing population of stray animals to be a problem, according to The Center of Research for Sustainability (CIS) of the Universidad Andrés Bello. In regards to solutions, 57% stated that stray dogs should be controlled as long as they are not euthanized.

Chilean public policy has been shifting to address the issue. The national government as well as individual municipalities have been developing plans to control the stray animal population. Sterilization is the main solution currently being put forward due to the fact that a sexually mature female dog, along with her offspring, can produce a staggering total of 67,000 dogs in six years.

A sexually mature female dog, along with her offspring, can produce a staggering total of 67,000 dogs in six years.

The Metropolitan Regional Council has approved a budget of $3 billion CLP to fund a project to relocate and sterilize over 100,000 stray dogs in the 52 communes that it governs. The three year plan put forth by the Council will use sterilization centers in neighboring municipalities in correlation with promotion of responsible ownership and relocation of abandoned pets. Its aim is to decrease the population growth from 1.8% to 1.3% by 2035.

100.000 stray dogs to be sterilized in Metropolitan area

Even so, sterilization of street dogs in Chile is a tall order considering that many pets are not routinely spayed or neutered, which subsequently adds to the problem of stray dogs. Puppies that are given away in haste find themselves abandoned when they outgrow the family home or when the family no longer can support them.

Hence, public education campaigns are a necessary component of any future governmental plants. A new law has been put in place which requires all pets to be microchipped and the abandonment of pets has recently been criminalized, all in an effort to develop a more responsible culture of pet ownership. Unfortunately, these changes are slow to take effect.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

Working on Solutions – UAA Shelter

There are several shelters around the country which aim to help severe cases of stray or abandoned animals. One example is a Santiago shelter run by the La Unión de Amigos de Los Animales (UAA, or, in English, The Union of Friends of Animals), a non-profit founded in 1955. This shelter is one of the oldest in Santiago and has the reputation of being one of the most trustworthy.

As one enters the shelter they are met with a sonic avalanche of barking dogs in a frenzy of excitement of seeing new people and the possibility of some attention or time outside the cage. Due to lack of space and resources, the shelter only takes in dogs in severe need of assistance. Currently, the shelter is almost at capacity with around 109 dogs and 65 cats, as well as a large pig, a sheep and a rooster.

Many of the dogs and cats housed here were rescued from shopping malls or constructions sites. Some dogs came in with injuries, pregnancies or behavior patterns that made life in the streets extremely difficult for them.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

The shelter is run on monthly donations and the hard work of volunteers who walk and bathe the dogs.  Purina Dog Chow is currently donating the dog food provisions for the shelter, without which the shelter would have difficulty providing basic nourishment for all the dogs. Fundraising campaigns do bring in resources, but are not usually extremely successful.  

Some dogs have spent as long as 10 to 12 years in this shelter—essentially, their whole lives. The massive population of stray dogs in Chile makes adoption that much harder as there are simply more dogs than responsible homeowners. Nonetheless, the shelter has successfully placed countless dogs through visitations of prospective owners, community outreach and a variety of other programs. For more information on the shelter and how you can get involved or donate, please visit their official website.

Working on Solutions – Adopta Perro

Adopta Perro, run by a small group of expats, is working tirelessly to help strays across Santiago. Started by Suzie Beaven, who took to Facebook to promote adoption of the strays that she had rescued, the group has helped numerous dogs find forever homes. In addition to posting images of rescues in need of a home, the page also helps lost pets reunite with their owners. Overtime, the Facebook page gained popularity among expats and a growing number of Chileans. Currently the page has thousands of followers.

Run entirely by volunteers, the group is engaged in volunteering at the UAA shelter as well as rescuing dogs, providing them with necessary veterinary care, arranging foster homes and eventually finding responsible owners for adoption.

The group relies entirely on donations which are needed solely for sterilization, other veterinary care and food. Donations for strays are not easy to come by, thus there is an urgency for the group to gather more finances. “We need foster homes, money for vet bills, food donations, and adoptions,” urges Kate Smith, senior member of Adopta Perro.

Photo: Chile Today / Kateryna Kurdyuk

As the group does not currently have a physical refuge, they rely on volunteers to provide foster homes for recently rescued dogs. “Placement is a big urgency,” states Kate Smith. Unfortunately, the concept of fostering is not commonplace in Chile. While it is customary for people to adopt needy strays from the streets, few Chilean are aware of the necessity of fostering.

Fostering a stray by offering it a temporary home gives that dog a chance to adjust to life with a family in a home or apartment, to develop desirable characteristics and behaviors, and to become socialized and trained, all of which are necessary to appeal to future adoptive owners and guarantee that the dog will be valued, reducing the chance of abandonment.

While many people may not be in a position to adopt a dog or cat forever, many are able to foster on a temporary basis, thus there is a great necessity in educating the Chilean public of this valuable volunteer opportunity.

Those interested in contributing to Adopta Perro, either with a donation, volunteering at the shelter or fostering, should contact Suzie Beaven through the Facebook page. English and Spanish are spoken by the members, making this an ideal opportunity for all to participate.

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