On a bluff overlooking the jawdroppingly gorgeous town of Matanzas, one of the lost perros of Chile.
When I first arrived in Santiago I noticed a lot of untended dogs, the majority with no collars, wandering aimlessly about town. I asked about them and was told they were strays, or homeless. How many? Estimates range to over a million — and I believe it, because they're everywhere. A high percentage appear to be some form of a Labrador breed, as if few other breeds existed here in Chile. You don't see small dogs very often. Of course, in the U.S. these dogs would be picked up by The Pound in a matter of days, if not hours, and then euthanized in 7 days if not adopted or claimed. Here that would be, I've been told, unthinkable. Yet, there's something interesting about these animals …
In the U.S. all dogs are on leashes in urban areas — or are supposed to be. And they're friendly, too friendly for my taste as they jump on you and slobber on you like you were their best friend, the dog owner's thinking that you're going to like their animal as much as they do. Often the owners have to restrain their animals because they'll bark ferociously at you. The dogs of Chile are totally different in temperament. They'll come up to you, but they almost always stop a few feet away and hang their heads shyly. They rarely, if ever, bark, and they never whimper or try to lick you or, God forbid, hump your leg. The Chilean people are not affectionate with these animals that they've clearly abandoned to the streets — one winemaker explained to me that when citizens can't afford their animals — and it's all dogs, not cats — they just release them, figuring the populace at large will find a way to take care of them. And they do, because, for the most part, the animals look pretty well fed. Sure they're not particularly groomed because they're out roaming all day and all night, but they seem relatively content to me.
But they look lonely. Because they're not used to affection they don't beg for it. They're quite humble. Chileans are tacitly encouraged not to feed them, but they do anyway. In some cities like Valparaiso the "problem" is so acute that garbage containers are mounted on poles so that the perros can't get to the food, but they find a way to do so anyways.
I have come to the ineluctable conclusion that the Chileans treat their stray dogs like we treat our homeless. We don't, for the most part, interact with them, but we give them money and clothes and try to help them out, and not totally disacknowledge their existence. We wish they would go away and find a home, but we know that that's impossible, so we tolerate them. Especially in Santa Monica where I lived for so many years. However, in an interesting ironical twist, I truly believe the Chileans treat their homeless like we treat our animals. I've spent enough time in the two major cities here — Santiago and Valparaiso — to conclude that homelessness (of the people kind) is virtually non-existent. I can only conclude that the citizens, or their family, take them in. Maybe there's a governmental program that I'm unaware of that helps them, but I just have not seen any sign of homelessness, certainly not like the kind I'm used to in my country. We treat our dogs the same way. There are nearly as many dogs in the U.S. as there are people — over 300 million. And, for the most part, they are extremely well cared for.
Maybe the Chileans have their priorities more in order than we Americans do. It' just a thought, one which I'm sure will bring me grief for having voiced it.