I could hear my heart pounding in my chest. Our flight was long but uneventful. We picked up our car and the moment of truth was about to present itself. I clenched my fist and looked down at the cracked floor mats of our not-so-gently used rental car.
Should I look up? Should I look around, down the block, past the people? Am I ready?
Before we left for our trip to Brasil, Eduardo – one of the few people who sees my insides – and I had a serious conversation about our visit. “We need to talk about the dog situation,” he said cautiously while unpacking his day. I took a deep breath and admitted I was nervous, unprepared and needed to have a plan. We agreed that I would not attempt to gather as many strays as I could and buy them all business class seats back to the states. Short of that, I still had too much gray area to deal with.
I had to prepare myself but I didn’t know for what. We talked through a number of scenarios and made some agreements. I agreed that if we could identify a couple of resources around the city of Sao Paulo just in case, I would feel better. Now, to define that just-in-case scenario was another thing. After a bit of negotiation we agreed our intervention would be limited to dogs that were in imminent danger. If they appeared sick or hurt, we would help. If they were just wandering around, I agreed to stand down.
It was hot. The palm trees looked almost wilted. Our little car thumped over the road toward a massive display of high rises. The sun hit panes of glass at angles that made the buildings seem like they were dressed in sequins. From our distance it was all sparkly. Closer, inside the maze created at the foot of these dancing buildings was something different. There was decay, a city worn thin, better days peeking through layers of graffiti. Favelas stamped the landscape with their distinct shapes, squares upon squares of random materials dotted with clotheslines, rainwater buckets and satellite dishes. I was getting nervous now. “Ok, where are they? Where are the dogs?”
I took a deep breath and lifted my head. But I wasn’t completely ready so I assumed the classic horror movie position: The “Oh my God, he’s behind you,” hands over the face with just a sliver between you fingers to peek out from. It was a few more blocks before I saw him. No leash. No collar but clearly in the company of a person. Once I got over my initial American shock of an unrestrained dog walking along a busy road, I did a quick assessment. He looked good – plump, happy, trotting along side of a shoeless man. Ok, that wasn’t so bad. Of course, it was just one.
Expectations are amazingly powerful. My imagination was full of hurt, skinny, helpless and homeless animals pouring into the streets, one more needy than the last. What I expected to see was not at all what was happening. I saw several more dogs. One was black and lean napping by the pumps of a closed gas station. Gas stations were popular places for the dogs to be. We passed another station with a big, shepherd mix donning a red bandana and hanging with attendants. No leash. No chain. No tether. He had a big dog house right by the entrance to the mini mart. At the mouth of a smaller favela were 2 dogs lying out on the sidewalk with some kids. “Oh, look! There are some on leashes!” That seemed the rarity for all 20 minutes of my christening.
On the way to Eduardo’s parents’ apartment building, we drove by a nice park and there were dogs everywhere, all accompanied, some on leash, some just casually strolling. Here is what I found striking: NONE were barking, pulling, lunging or acting in any way frustrated or stressed. Not ONE. Very few were neutered. There were more sacks in that park than a potato farm in Idaho. As we ventured out and around the city my amazement and relief continued to grow. The dogs were everywhere, allowed to be out, to be free, to walk around in the malls, roam the parks and they seemed HAPPY. And smart. No one was darting into traffic, picking fights or scaring any of the humans.
We traveled to a beautiful island just off the coast of the city and I was filled with curiosity and peppered with apprehension. I wanted hang on to my pleasant surprise, keep my new found bubble from bursting. I had one scare: a medium sized, graying dog walking alone along a busy road. I could not see a person but what I quickly realized was if there was a house, even one house, the dog was probably good. What I was learning was there were no strays – not the way we think of them anyway. There were the unrestrained; they were the unattended. They all appeared to be healthy, well fed, and for the most part, safe.
The ferry was packed and as we were waiting, I saw more dogs with their people waiting to board. I saw a yellow dog grabbing some shade while his guy worked his shift ushering the cars onto the boat. We putted along the water, taking in the vista. I was a bit anxious as we debarked so I said a little prayer to myself, “Please, just let them be ok.”
The island was beautiful. And I was a bit less afraid of looking around. We saw a few dogs hanging out as we made our way to our posada. Our host had 2 house dogs, rescue mixes that came from the same litter. They greeted us jumping excitedly, one a bit mouthy. I got down on my knees and let them do their thing. They calmed and went back in the house.
Now, this is where the fun begins…
We went into town on a mission: Find our evening meal and gather groceries for the morning. It was close to dinner and suddenly, like someone had shaken a bag of kibble, dogs appeared. There was a little guy missing a leg – a legitimate amputation, an older Boxer trotting outside our restaurant, a big yellow lab looking thing, a little scruffy black dog, and a female hound mix. Of course, I needed information. Through my loving and patient interpreter we asked the waiter about the Boxer. We asked a question that seemed to puzzle him: “Does anyone own her?” He went on to explain that everyone cares for her, watches out for her, and make sure she eats. Let me just comment here that this dog, though technically homeless, was actually a little chunky.
Making sure to pack up our leftovers, we paid and set off to find her. She was trotting around the square coming in and out view but we had lost her in the crowd. We came upon a woman with a little cart serving ice cream outside a very busy park. Moving closer we noticed a white shape contrasting the black of the cart’s wheels. It was a little hound, no collar. Again, Eduardo, my dear man, went into interpreter mode. “Babe, ask the ice cream lady, who this is. Does she have a person? Can we feed her?” After a lengthy and quite excited conversation, we learned her name was Amanda and she hung with a pack of dogs cared for by a Gypsy man who frequently had to leave the island and when he did the locals kept their eye on them to make sure they we ok.
The little park was teeming with people, kids playing, families laughing, and the dogs. We pulled out our leftovers and my little street dog friend actually turned her nose up at some of my offerings which gave me a chuckle. Then out of the shadow of a parked car, I saw her. Kika. She was a little, very old, very skinny dog who was obviously looking for food. She was another one of the Gypsy’s dogs. My concern grew as I fed her and ran my hand down her body. She was skin and bones, itchy and uncomfortable. Ok, this is exactly what we agreed to – sick or injured, that’s what we said. Yes. I will do something. I will help! Just not sure how…
With both dog’s fed and a little information from the ice cream lady about Kika and her condition, we decided to leave. But I could not shake the feeling that I needed to help the skinny little black dog. “Babe, I can’t stop thinking about Kika.” He replied, “I know. Let’s take a ride by on the way to the beach and see if we can find her or the ice cream lady.” It was a hot morning and no one was in the square so we decided to return in the evening to see what we could do.
At the beach we met 2 more dogs roaming around sharing lunch with anyone who offered. We had our two little friends under the umbrella. Eduardo said, “Sentar.” They both sat and gently took their pieces of fried fish. They looked across the table, eyes meeting briefly, and decided to stay politely out of each other’s way. There was a funny little stand off deserving a mention. A stubby brown dog obviously infringed on our little black dog’s territory. The dog ran out from under our table straight toward the little stubby dog - stalking posture, head down body low. She stared at the interloper who in turn licked her lips, tucked her tail and scooted away. Our dog returned to us for a few more morsels. And that was it. Done. No fight. Instead it was a beautiful piece of communication had by 2 dogs left to solve their grievance without humans messing things up.
That evening Eduardo and I decided we would use some of our money to help Kika if she needed it. But first we had to track down the ice cream lady. We found her. Her face lit up and she opened a firehouse of Portuguese upon our approach. I looked at Eduardo with panic throwing him back into interpreter mode. Her name was Naji. She told us more about the Gypsy, the dogs, the places they usually hang out, and one of the guys who knows the Gypsy and cares for the dogs as well. Feeling like I was about to be thrown into a Cohen Brothers movie, I agreed to take a trip into the nearby neighborhood to locate Kika and this cast of characters.
Walking and talking and not understanding a word, I had no idea what was coming. We stopped by an abandoned building to look for Amanda. Fireworks had scared her into hiding. Next door there was an apartment where the man might be. There was a dog laying across the threshold of an open door and another inside lying on a tile floor at the feet of a shirtless man working on a laptop. Naji took us in and from what I was told, explained why we were there. He welcomed us and began to tell us about all the dogs, approximately 9, that he was caring for and how much he loved them. He was a chiropractor and had a house near by. This apartment he lends to whomever may need it. That of course comes with the understanding that this is also the crash pad for the dogs.
Naji got my attention and pointed to a quiet corner of the room. I peeked over the couch and saw her. Kika was sleeping deeply. He explained that he had taken her to the vet. They gave her some antibiotics for what appeared to be infections. They really don’t know how old she is but I am guessing she is between 12 and 14. She may very well be at the end of life, maybe even struggling with cancer. But in this beautifully free and wild place dogs are allowed to live and die naturally. There will be no ultrasound, no MRI, surgery, or chemo for Kika. She will be kept comfortable, she will be loved and she will be allowed to go when her body gives way.
We met the rest of his charges, including a little black dog with the biggest submissive grin I have ever seen. He walked back to the ice cream cart with us, pillaging an unguarded box of bread rolls on the way. Naji was expressing her joy over our concern and said how much she loved us for it. She also told us “I love you” was the only English she knew which oddly did not make it any less genuine. Our final question was asking if we could do anything more. She felt confident that dogs were all doing well and they had no trouble supporting them. We bought some ice cream, hugged goodbye, and promised to return. The dogs had all dispersed. I said my goodbyes softly into the night air. “Good night, my loves."
Returning to the city, we shared all of our stories with Eduardo’s parents. They took us to meet a couple more dogs in the neighborhood. Clifford, a big black dog, spends part of his time in a house across the street from their apartment and the other part in his doghouse found situated under some trees in a nearby park. He wanders around with his little friend Simba. She is cared for buy a man on a bicycle who hangs out in a little one-room building on the edge of that same park.
Why am I telling you all this? Well, here it comes, my opinion. I think the dog situation in the United States has become so unnatural that we are seeing more and more dogs struggling with their reality. In this country (and other countries I am sure), we impact everything dogs would naturally control if left to do so. I was asked about the dog populations in such an unrestricted culture. Admittedly, I only experienced small parts of a big country so I am sure there are situations contradicting what I saw. But what appeared to be happening was natural breeding selection and populations being dictated by the availability of resources and the need to thrive. What we have in the U.S., a country with an obscene canine overpopulation crisis, is a culture that continues to breed dogs for reasons that are not in the best interest of the species, one of the most damaging being profit.
I watched dogs work out their issues, approach and disengage with people in calm and opportunistic ways. I saw dogs not being owned but being cared for. I did not see reactivity, aggression, or frustration – I am sure there are some unruly canines out there. I did not see wildly saturated areas of overpopulation even in the face of obviously unaltered dogs. I saw people loving these animals. Animals. They were animals whose needs were being met not by indulgence but with freedom. They could roam, argue, greet, hide, bark, run, scavenge, and rest their heads with people who love them. I know we don’t get a do over – back to a time when dogs lived according to their constitution. But we definitely need an adjustment so we can help our dogs find what they need, allow them free expression of their own instincts, and lastly we need to be wary of how we are impacting their evolution.