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Guest post: Santiago

In this week’s guest post, we travel south to Santiago, Chile, as the city wakes up to the southern hemisphere spring. Eileen of Bearshapedsphere, a Brooklyn expat now based in Chile’s capital, takes us for a fun walk around town and a look at her four-legged co-citizens: the ubiquitous street dogs.


Santiago, Chile is a modern-meets-antique city in the valley that lies between the soaring Andes and the coastal range. It’s hot and dry in the summer, cool and smoggy in the winter, with its seven million inhabitants dressed for the occasion as we hurtle on through the seasons. At this time of year, spring welcomes us: umbrellas slip away, sleeves shorten and we wait for that strong summer sun to keep us warm into the evening. Oh, and the dogs come out.

In her book My Invented Country, Chilean author Isabel Allende talks about the Chilean street dog, musing that they look like dogs would if humans had never intervened – midsized, brown, with no distinguishing characteristics. I can’t speak to their appearance so much as to their re-appearance. In winter and cooler months you’ll see street dogs hunkered down in home-made doghouses that neighbors build for them and, as the days warm up, dozing lazily outside.

Think I’m kidding? See below.

Dogs that have no cardboard homes, or those that are suddenly seized by the need for a nap, can be found sleeping all over the place. They fully expect you to step around them, which of course you do, mindful of the admonition to let sleeping dogs lie. They’ll pretty much lie down anywhere. Even in front of the riot police. Yawn. That’s so predictable.

This, after a hard day of protesting. You might take a nap, too.

And what’s a parade without a few dogs running in and out of the masses? They’re so much a part of the city backdrop that no one even attempts to shoo them away.

People seem to really love the street dogs, putting out plates of food – sometimes kibble, sometimes cut-up hot dogs. But it’s never bread, since these dogs know their place in the food chain and leave the bread for the pigeons, which are very appreciative. People even dress the street dogs in weather-appropriate “garments” as the season requires. Consider this dog, whom I like to call superdog, dressed in a cape fashioned out of a trash bag. It had been raining earlier in the day.

Street dogs seem to continue on a survival-of-the-fittest (or scrappiest) basis. Those who know how to cross the street with humans (not against the light) live to see another day. Those who don’t, well, don’t. The ones in Santiago seem to be self-trained to make their way across with people. I have actually had to turn back when crossing a street illegally that required me to hop a fence when I realized a dog had followed me – I could neither lift him over the fence nor leave him in the middle of the street.

All of this makes it sound like we live a peaceful existence with the street dogs. But where in the winter sleeping dogs lazily yawn at us from their doorways or cardboard huts, at this time of year (spring) dogs seem to shake out of their winter doldrums like the rest of us and get downright peppy, both playful and aggressive. For someone who bikes nearly everywhere, this can be a problem. I’ve actually had a dog clamp onto my shoe and pull my foot down as I pedal past Plaza de Armas late at night.

To which the correct response (or to any aggressive/annoying dog in Chile) is “Sale!” (Say: SAL-ay), meaning get out. That makes little sense since most of the time when dogs get rowdy, everyone is already outside. But philosophical dialogue aside – the dogs usually run away. I’m sad to say it’s because “Sale!” has probably often come paired with a kick or another form of person-on-dog violence. But, really, between my peacefully-pedalling leg and the mandible of a carnivore, “Sale!” it is and off they go.

Periodically there are campaigns to rid the city of its street dogs, campaigns that people deem cruel but necessary. Especially around La Moneda, the presidential palace, where protests take place and dignitaries come to rub shoulders with other dignitaries, the idea of having a posse of street dogs come up and attack is less than savory. Plus it does nothing to foster Chile’s desired image as up and coming, not violent and dog-bitey.

So something happens. A group culling, you could say. People are up in arms about it for a week, or maybe three, and then everyone gets puppies for their birthday or because they had a breakup and feel sad. Few people get their dogs “fixed” so they go out and mate and there are yet more puppies, a veritable melting pot of puppy creation, with German shepherd roots and a finish of poodle or hound. At least some of these are destined to snooze on the street like they have not a care in the world, and some are destined to try to give you a good chomp when you go by.

All of this seems so strange in light of the fact that people here seem to really, really love their pets. There are more veterinarians and pet-supply stores in Santiago than I’ve ever seen in any other city. Which just brings to light again the great contrast that is this place I call home. Soaring mountains with gentle hills, ultramodern office high-rises with gas canister deliveries being made by cargo tricycle, and my (Chilean-American) friends’ dogs who spend their days like this:

And that is a whole other blog post about culture and class and effort and status quo and purposeful living. But for now, look: dogs!

Blog Comments

This reminds me of the many street dogs I saw traveling around the Balkans. Unfortunately they weren't nearly as appreciated as the Chilean dogs appear to be and were more or less tolerated/ignored.

I had to learn quickly that you can't slip them any tidbits unless you want a new friend following you for the rest of the day! It was adorable but immensely heartbreaking

This is great, Eileen. A fitting and, from what I saw in Santiago, very accurate tribute.

Love that photo of the sleeping dog vs. riot police.

Where on earth did you manage to get that many pictures of dogs? You would make an excellent um… whatever job requires you to track animals in the city. Superdog is adorable though – I hope he managed to undress from his cape in the end.

Thanks for the comments, and Richard (if it's not too late to answer this), I got that many pictures of dogs because there simply are that many dogs here. They're a part of the daily backdrop. Oh, and I take pictures of almost anything, at any rate.

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