The strays of Santiago

Daniela and I were eating sopaipillas in the Plaza de la Constitución, in front of La Moneda, the presidential palace where Salvador Allende supposedly shot himself during the Chilean coup of 1973 (there has always been controversy over whether Allende committed suicide or not, largely because his death came from an AK-47 assault rifle, given to him as a gift by Fidel Castro, which seems like an odd way for a physician to kill himself, don’t you think?).
Anyway, we’re having some street food and looking at the palace, trying to figure out which parts had been destroyed by bombing during the coup, when BAM! a wild beast came out of nowhere and snatched my fluffy sopaipilla right out of my hand.
“What the hell was that?” I said. Daniela was laughing.
“No, no, it’s okay,” she said. “It’s just one of the street dogs.”

The sopaipilla-snatcher. Photos by David Lansing.

The sopaipilla-snatcher. Photos by David Lansing.

That’s when I noticed there were more strays around the presidential palace than soldiers (and there were a lot of soldiers).  In fact, wherever you go in Santiago, you will stumble across a street dog—sometimes literally. Most of them really are strays but quite a few of them—including a dozen or so around La Moneda—have collars on them, which means they are owned by someone (although Daniela says this can also be a ruse; evidently the government decided a couple of years ago to get rid of all the stray dogs in the downtown area around the palace, decreeing that any mutt without a license and collar would be picked up, so people went around putting bogus collars on strays to make it look like they were pets).
Stray dogs are like mosquitos; once you become aware of them, it seems like they’re everywhere. And in Santiago, they kind of are. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, as in most Latin countries, Chileans seem to think that “fixing” an animal just isn’t right. God created cats and dogs to go out and procreate, so for god’s sakes, let them fulfill their biological destiny.
Secondly, Chileans think it’s mean to keep a dog locked up in a house all day. So even if the German shepherd that stole my sopaipilla is someone’s pet (and he certainly looked too healthy to be living on the streets), most likely he was let out of the apartment to go out and play with the other doggies when his owner went to work in the morning.
I know, weird, huh.

Do you think he'll bite if we pet him?

Do you think he’ll bite if we pet him?

So now I see street dogs everywhere in Santiago—chasing each other in Parque Forestal, snoozing in the doorway of an ice cream shop, wandering in packs around Plaza de Armas. But here’s the thing: They seem pretty meek. And, as I said, for the most part they look pretty well-fed (several times I’ve seen garbage collectors or park maintenance employees putting out bowls of food for the animals). It’s like everyone in Santiago has decided that all the stray dogs are communal pets and so everyone has a little bit of a responsibility to feed and take care of them.
Which includes, I suppose, letting them eat my sopaipilla. I just wish next time they’d do the traditional begging routine instead of dining and dashing.

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  1. greg grinnell’s avatar

    In most countries street dogs are usually treated in a terrible manner, however the street dogs in Chile, especially in Vina del Mar and Valparaiso are treated very well, are healthy and friendly. Only country in the world where I have experienced friendly well fed and more or less healthy street dogs, must say something about the temperament of the people themselves, there is the story. Greg

  2. Allan’s avatar

    “…there has always been controversy over whether Allende committed suicide or not…”

    In Canada it was always reported that the coup in which Allende died was CIA-sponsored and that his death was an assassination. I have never heard the suicide theory. I believe his widow has also always claimed he died at the hands of others. If you’re going to shoot yourself, it would seem reasonable you would use a handgun which allowed for better accuracy. And since he was reported to have died in the presidential palace, one would think handguns wouldn’t be in short supply.

  3. Anonymous dog observer’s avatar

    I’m pretty sure that German shepherd that stole your sopaipilla is a stray, even though he looks healthy. He often sleeps outside the Bellas Artes metro, and I usually bring him leftovers on my way there in the morning (as it’s the closest metro to my apartment). I think a lot of people here adopt dogs and then decide they can’t keep them, either because they aren’t allowed to keep pets in their apartments and the neighbors report them because the dogs bark too much, or because they decide taking care of a dog is too much of a hassle, etc. And then, of course, like you said, they go out and have puppies. I don’t know how often this occurs though, because I hardly ever see puppies wandering the streets. On the other hand, maybe people adopt the stray puppies because they’re cute, and then abandon them when they grow up and aren’t as cute. Who knows. Anyway, interesting phenomenon. I enjoyed the post.

  4. Jeff Hicken’s avatar

    I like dogs. I’ve loved both of the ones we’ve had. But the stray dogs I encountered in Chile disturbed me. When I’d try to jog in Villarica, I’d be charged by a dog every other block. Some were mangy. I noticed fewer in Santiago, but we were mostly in Las Condes. When the local bus went through less-affluent areas, there were more. There were also a lot in Punta Arenas. Why can’t there be a control program? Surely some tourists have decided not to return because of this.

  5. Matti’s avatar

    Hi David,

    just read your story as I came back an hour ago from a meal I was invited to in the center of Santiago, close to the Palacio de Gobierno, where they are now showing the capsule used to save the miners.

    I was surprised by the number of dogs, but furthermore by the places they were resting at. Some of them close to the policemen, or in the middle of the sidewalks, and almost came to the conclusion they were police dogs in disguise… as they were adopting a proper stance for a police dog.

    On the other hand it amused me they way people related to them. I think tolerance to animals, must be pretty high.

    Tolerance, together with talent and technology are, according to professor Richard Florida, three key indicators of innovative cities and countries. Should we set up a stray dog index, resembling Big Mac’s?

  6. Tim’s avatar

    The strays of Santiago are part of the experience. There was a group who hung around out the front of our hotel and chased every car that went past, they never got hit though. Although the funniest was one that sat at one of the busy intersections and everytime it was time for pedestrians to cross he would walk across with them, wait on the other side and then cross back when it it changed again. All day!

  7. Ilcia’s avatar

    Dear Jeff Hicken,
    I’m sorry you felt so intimidated by our strays dogs in Chile but we do not believe in killing dogs by lethal
    injection only because they could not be adopted on kennels.
    We do have canine control programmes but they haven’t been here long due to Pinochet’s terrorist’s dictartoship where the only solution to control the canine population was the killing.
    We do not need any suggestions about how to exterminate dogs in order to pleased turists with your mentality. Chile’s main sustainable source is the export of Cooper and not tourism.
    I noticed in one of the lines that Jeff wrote,he mention that some of the strays dogs were mangy as this was a condition that really affected him emotionally.
    Let me tell you my dear friend that the so colled “mangy dogs you mention” are the healthiest dogs in nature because of their large genetics pool and the so colled pedigree are nothing more than a man made incest.
    We do not believe in killing any dog, we believe in taking care of them in the streets, meanwhile, we will continue working with our local authorities in educating people about responsable ownership.
    We Know it is possible to find a humane solution to this problem as is already taking place in a very interesting city called Quilpue where the local authorities has worked together with the comunity.
    In Quilpue you come across dogs walking placidly among shoppers carriying a collar with a card where the date of sterilization and treatments are printed on it.

    Ilcia from sunny Limache.

  8. Jocelyn’s avatar

    So , anyone can at least help with this problem? Am from chile and i live in uk but am very tired of keep trying help street dogs,sending money,leaflets,food anything to help…we need more than words, we need action please. Also its a goverments responsabilities to educated people,sterelization and adoption…but with piraña its not chance to be succecfull. :(

  9. Ilcia’s avatar

    This is the first time i heard that someone from abroad is sending money to solve the problem with stray dogs, you do not have to do this if you feel so unconfortable, we do no need it.
    People here are extremelly helpfull in supported us with money food and medication. Not anyone can help with the problem but there are plenty who help in one way or another.
    I doubt it wether the goverment would do something to solve this problem, they haven’t done it in the UK otherwise the RSPCA would have never existed.
    By the way back packers who are travelling to Vina del Mar, there is a guest house or hostal in Vina del Mar Recreo in a residential area in case you are looking for a place to stay. Is cheap, clean and completly renovated. It also has swimming pool and seaside view, the price per night is seven thousands pesos.
    For more information visit in google, Loft Del Mar. the address is Camino Real 1524 Recreo Vina del Mar. From this city you can travell on the metro train to villages around, to the mountains and if you want to do camping in the Campana National Park just take the metro to Limache, from this lovely town you can catch a small bus to the compana, It cost 500 pesos.

  10. Yvonne’s avatar

    I am presently in Chile and I find these stray dogs to be a great conversation piece. They all seem to be calm and without any fear of people and therefore without any need to be a threat to humans. My friends and I have made a game of seeing who can spot the most stray dogs in a day!
    The people of chile seem to be friendly and I am not surprised to find that they would treat their animals with compassion.

  11. Jenessa’s avatar

    I am a student from the US studying in Valpo. During my stay here the dogs have been really friendly and i always try to save some scraps from lunch for them. But what concerns me are the many dogs here that limp around with broken appendages, missing eyes and numerous ticks. Without medical attention, many of these dogs will/do die on the street. Also, just this week more than 40 dogs were found poisoned in Punta Arenas, Chile. Clearly someone has a problem with these animals on the street. i just hope the problem can begin to be corrected in the most humane manner before its too late for many more dogs. In the article talking about the presidents response to the mass poisonings of dogs, he said he would introduce a bill for tighter regulations for dog ownership, i think this is definitely a step in the right direction. A statistic provided by Pro Animal Chile said that ~73% of the dogs on the street have been abandoned or have owners that do not provide adequate care. I hope that Chile can hold owners more accountable and educate people on the responsibility of having a dog before they buy one. Best of luck.

  12. Jim’s avatar

    I would suggest a bit more caution than some have indicated. My second week in Stgo I was walking through Parque Bustamante and felt a sudden “hit” on the back of my lower leg. Turning around I was facing 3 not-friendly looking, growling dogs. As I moved away, 2 of them began a flanking manuever on both my right and left, while the apparent “alpha” stayed right in front of me, growling and baring his teeth. As I moved closer to a group of people, they left. Fortunately, the skin of my leg was not broken, no blood. Perhaps they just wanted me out of their territory. However I personally know several people who have had to undergo treatment of rabies shots due to street-dog bites. One of my students missed class, then showed up at the next class with a badly damaged hand from a street-dog encounter. 90% of street dogs will not bother you, but the other 10% are a reality which requires caution.

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