Quiltro: The Communal Dogs of Santiago

Seeing a stray dog on the street can evoke a myriad of complex questions and emotions, and in Santiago stray dogs are abundant.

 Photo by Lauren Fay
Photo by Lauren Fay

Throughout most of Santiago they congregate on street corners, wait patiently at crosswalks for the light to change, shuffle under outdoor tables in search of food scraps, and bask in the shade during the heat of the day... well, pretty much everywhere. These dogs are known as "quiltro" or "perros callejeros," and there are estimated to be upwards of one million in Chile, more than half living in Santiago.

This may be a shock for people who are not from countries where stray dogs are a common occurrence. For example, in the United States you can travel for months without encountering a single stray dog. Any dog unaccompanied by a human is presumed to be lost or abandoned. Most are captured by animal control or "rescued" by a good Samaritan. They often end up in shelters where all are sterilized, the fortunate are adopted, and the less desirable are euthanized.

 Photo by Lauren Fay
Photo by Lauren Fay

On the other hand, Chile's quiltro certainly live more comfortably than strays in other countries where they are abundant. In India and Ukraine, for example, stray dogs are ignored at best and in some instances exterminated like vermin by vigilante groups.

Measures to control the population of stray dogs in Santiago are limited to sterilization programs. These programs are adopted differently in each comuna, from how many sterilizations they will perform per day to how many pets per household they will sterilize for free. Until recently, there was no law against abandoning dogs. The city of Santiago does not have an animal control division to capture stray dogs, and only one shelter exists to house them.

Founded in 2009, Ñuñoa's Centro de Rescate Canino is Santiago's first and only public animal shelter. It takes in dogs that have been injured or abandoned and houses them until they can be adopted. Additionally, it provides an on-site veterinarian to treat them.

Unfortunately, like most animal shelters worldwide, funding and space is limited. They rely heavily on volunteers to walk the dogs, and kind souls to adopt them making space for more rescues. Additionally, because many of the dogs living in the shelter have experienced severe physical and emotional trauma from abandonment and/or abuse before arriving at the shelter, some are very challenging to care for, and perhaps even more difficult to find homes for.

 Courtesy of Centro de Resquete Canino Ñuñoa
Courtesy of Centro de Resquete Canino Ñuñoa

While Centro de Rescate Canino has been a huge success and provides a model for other comunas to follow, it simply does not have the resources to take in every dog in need. The heartbreaking reality is that as many dogs as Centro de Rescate Canino helps, many more still suffer on the street from malnourishment, sickness and parasites, some of which do not survive the cold winters.

Another unique approach to solving this problem is underway in Comuna Maipú, where the mayor has introduced an initiative to rescue abandoned street dogs and train them to form a dog brigade. Ideally, the dog brigade will act as public security while improving relationships between the dogs and people, reducing crime, and decreasing abandonment by promoting responsible dog ownership. Critics on the other hand point out that there is little evidence that such a program will be effective and question whether street dogs (many of which have experienced significant trauma at the hands of humans) are fit to serve as public security, and whether it is ethical to put them to work for the police.

Photo courtesy Twitter
Photo courtesy Twitter

Earlier this year, a shocking video which captured a dog named Cholito being brutally beaten to death by a woman and three others outside a gallery on Patronato went viral sparking demonstrations, petitions, and complaints against those responsible for the dog's murder. In just one day, a petition on Change.org gathered more than 40 thousand signatures.

April 12, 2017 marked a monumental step forward for those fighting hard to protect Santiago's dogs with the passage of the Ley de Tenencia Responsable, a new legislation referred to by many as the "Ley Cholito."

The law is defined as "the set of obligations contracted by a person when deciding to accept and maintain a pet or animal companion." These obligations include, among other responsibilities, registration with the competent authority, providing it with food, shelter, good treatment, veterinary care essential to its well-being, and not subjecting it to suffering throughout its life.

 Photo by Lauren Fay
Photo by Lauren Fay

A registry will be created of each person who owns an animal. In addition to education for the responsible pet ownership, and the aim of controlling their population without damaging the animals themselves, municipalities will be tasked with generating an ordinance of tenure, assisting abandoned animals, and delivering them to foundations that welcome them and look for a new owner. Legal penalties will be imposed against those found attacking, causing death to, or abandoning animals.

However, while some consider Chile's stray dog population a problem for laws or organizations to solve, others accept quiltro as part of the local culture. In fact, massive groups of people have taken to the streets to protest previous attempts by the government to enact more severe dog population control laws. There is a common sentiment among many of Santiago's residents that the quiltro "no son de nadie, son de todos." In other words, they belong to the community rather than to individuals.

 Photo by Lauren Fay
Photo by Lauren Fay

This shows in ways that range from practical to adorable. Many leave dishes of water on the sidewalk for the dogs. Others take them to the veterinarian for vaccinations or buy them flea collars. Some even knit them sweaters to keep them warm in the winter. Yes, sweaters! Others take them home as pets. Rebecca, a member of our team at Revista Revolver, currently cares for 12 rescue dogs!

In one of the more touching examples of community involvement with the quiltros, Caro Pinda and Felipe Carrasco Guzmán printed sayings on balloons such as "pet me," "play with me," or "don’t leave me," and tied them to quiltros so they would not be ignored. They captured reactions in this video:

ESTOY AQUÍ Intervención Urbana / I AM HERE Urban Intervention from Felipe Guzmán on Vimeo.

If you want to help dogs in need here is Santiago, there are many ways to make an impact! Ñuñoa's Centro de Rescate Canino is open Saturday to new volunteers, so swing by and walk a dog or three! Or better yet, adopt one! You can find them online at:
http://www.nunoa.cl/index.php/municipio/unidades-municipales/direccion-d...

Alternatively, you can engage in random acts of kindness to any dogs you may encounter on the street. Give them some food, water, a sweater, or even just some love. "no son de nadie, son de todos." In other words, they belong to everyone, so caring for them is everyone's responsibility.

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Centro de Rescate Canino
http://www.nunoa.cl/index.php/municipio/unidades-municipales/direccion-d...

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