Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Dogs are everywhere

In England, dogs are esteemed members of the family – not quite on the same pegging as a wife or a first son, but certainly on the same rung as a grandparent, and way above uncles and aunts. As shocking and incomprehensible as it might sound to English ears: in Ecuador people are valued more highly than dogs.

I love dogs as much as the next man. You might even call me a dog person. But the more I think about it, the more I think Ecuadorians are right.

It's not that Ecuadorians don't like dogs, because they do. In fact, I think I've seen more dogs in Ecuador than in the UK – although this is probably because most of them live out on the streets. I just think South Americans have a more sensible attitude towards animals than the British. After all, they're just dogs.

Whymper the Alsatian
Whymper the mountain dog... who left us to die on the slopes of Chimborazo
When I think of the treatments, therapies, operations and medicines friends' dogs have received in England I actually feel slightly disgusted. This probably sounds a bit Geldof-esque (in the worst possible way), but I've driven to remote Andean and jungle communities where people are dying because they can't afford antibiotics or the taxi fare to the nearest hospital.

Two years ago I visited a vet in Surrey who had just installed a hyrdro-therapy pool for dogs. He's known as the bionic vet because he fits prosthetic legs to dogs who've lost limbs to cancer. Two months ago I visited a remote village 3,500 metres above sea-level where a woman was suffering her second bout of tuberculosis in a year, having already lost her husband (and any means of financial support) to the same illness. If it wasn't for the NGO I was with, she would also have died leaving an orphaned child in a village full of alcoholics.

I asked the bionic vet if spending tens of thousands of pounds treating a dog was not obscene and he told me it was just personal choice. Some people buy Ferraris, others like to fit prosthetic hips on their genetically-faulty designer dogs. “It's their money,” he said. “They should be able to spend it however they like.” I agree... to an extent... because isn't buying a Ferrari also obscene?

But this brings me onto the flip-side of the coin. The perro callejero (street dog).

I realised I'd been in Ayampe (a coastal town in Ecuador) for too long when I was first name terms with six of the street dogs in town. What a pack we were! There was little Salchicha, the scaredy-cat sausage dog. There was Zuca the playful labrador puppy who ate three chickens one morning and Jose had to pay $30 for the loss. There was Oso, a sort of Jack-Russell, who hunts crabs on the beach – El Cangrejero they call him. Then there's Wiley! What a royal shit he is.

Wiley was the leader of the street dogs, so called because he looked like a coyote. He was a bully and made a sport of kicking Oso's head in. Lucy and I dubbed him Wanker, because he was always behaving like a complete wanker. He used to chase the poor, old donkey up and down the beach, barking at it and biting its tail. At night he would corner the donkey and bark until well into the madrugada. He was also known as rapey-dog because of his predilection for bikini-clad, blonde backpackers. He literally would not take no for an answer.

Like most street dogs Wiley got a nasty skin infection, he had a parasite in his head. Some bikini-clad, blonde backpacker took pity on him and packed him off to the vet at her expense. When she went on her way Wiley was left out on the streets once again.

Cure and release is a common theme. In Ayampe an American hotel owner once paid for a vet to treat all the street dogs in town. A generous act? In my opinion, it would have been better to put them all down. Dogs aren't bred to live without humans. Within a month all of their conditions had returned and we were back to square one.

In Quito the situation is even worse. Street dogs howl and bark all night. They forage for food and rip bins apart, which in turn encourages rats. Occasionally they bite children. They are always getting themselves run over – dead or wounded street dogs are a common sight on the roadsides in Ecuador and it's never nice to see.

But I don't want to paint too black a picture.

Of course, I've met some real crackers in South America. For example, Jacinto the ginger beach bum in Mancora was a beauty. And then there was Whymper the Alsatian who lived at the mountain lodge of Chimborazo. He followed Lucy and I on a hike to 5,000 metres... then we got lost on the slopes of the volcano and he swiftly abandoned us. He looked a rather sheepish when we returned sun-burnt and pissed-off four hours later. I should also probably give a name-check to Canela, Emila's pampered poodle who dances an Irish jig on her hind legs whenever she gets excited. And of course there's Randy Russett, Canela's sweetheart street dog who lives over the road.

Dogs are Everywhere, as Jarvis Cocker would say.

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