Who let the dogs out!

Scratch a dog and you’ll find a permanent job. — Franklin P. Jones 

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Communal dog houses in the park.

Down Calle Puente north from the Plaza de Armas to Mercado Central in Santiago a small group of tourists stop suddenly. They’ve been walking for less than ten minutes and in that time they’ve been joined by a pack of eight dogs: a ratio of two to one.

Welcome to Chile’s capital.

In South America strays are a permanent fixture on the streets, especially in Chile where chances are at some point in your journey you’ll be joined by a dog or three.

The difference is how strays there are treated. Dotted along Parque Forestal, created on reclaimed land from the Mapocho River in the historical downtown area west of Plaza Baquedano and east of Estación Mapocho, kennels dot the landscape. It’s a place where you’ll find locals feeding dogs like Venetians feed birds in St Mark’s Square. It’s a daily ritual.

There’s no need to be frightened. The canines are friendly and the threat of Rabies is small. When a pack of humans are out in force all the dogs want to do is join in the fun and, of course, hope that at the end of the walk they’ll receive a reward.

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Man’s best friend is a stray on the streets of Santiago.

The number of strays in South America has reached epidemic proportions. In 2012 Santiago’s human population was just over six million, the dog population across the country is estimated at double that. Sadly about 17.5 million Chileans are loving these animals to death. They want them when they’re cute, abandon them when they are big and too expensive to feed or sterilise, leaving them to breed on the street. As a consequence given most municipalities won’t step in, Chileans are forced to share the animals’ care as best they can.

Populate and perish

But if disease doesn’t get them, starvation will. For every well-fed dog, there’s plenty that aren’t. Those on the lower rung of the pack can only watch as their canine mates demand first dibs at treats. It certainly isn’t a dog’s life in South America.

Yet for one stray in the nearby port town of Valparaíso things recently took a turn for the better. In February a family from the United States on a cruise came across their very own “Chili Dog”. From the minute he greeted the family by photobombing them and following them around for the day, the O’Connor family from Seattle knew they had to take him home.

Three months and $US2000 later, including a month’s search to locate their future pet, Chile Dog was neutered, vaccinated and an airline persuaded to transport him to his new home.

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This underfed Chili Dog is content to sit and wait with a tour group.

It’s a great outcome but for the rest left behind there’s a common fate they often fall victim to. Along the streets and highways that connect Chile’s suburbs and cities unfortunately you’ll witness dog roadkill.

Judy Wilkinson is a freelance journalist and blogger who recently visited the Chilean cities of Santiago, Valparaíso and Pucón.

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