“Cariña” – The Tale of a Street Dog with Distemper

Valparaíso, Chile

“On the first-floor landing, outside the locked clinic door of what we thought was a 24-hour practice, the four of us stood in a circle around our furry friend who patiently laid on the floor in front of us. We discussed our options again and expressed our frustrations at the situation, there was a complication at every turn. It seemed to us that no amount of money was going to save the life of the happy perra before us. We had not adopted a street dog. Cariña adopted us. From the moment we invited her into our home she welcomed us into her pack. She thanked us with love and loyalty. She was the kind of dog who could touch your heart in an instant. We were fortunate enough to receive her beautiful affection and wisdom for almost three days.”

Valparaíso is a haven for street dogs. The people here leave food and water out for them, cars slow down for them to cross the street, and there are even dog kennels on quiet streets for them to sleep in. At first I thought there was only one major drawback to having a high population of quiltros– street dogs – the mess they leave behind. When Ash and I walk the streets we both have to look out for each other. He is on the look out for possible pick-pockets, while I watch we don’t step into a sticky situation. After spending five weeks in this cultural sea-side town I have seen the real reason some people ignore the bag-of-bones’ sleeping on the cold, hard concrete. Their lives are short — too short. The pooch you pat today may not live until tomorrow. This was a heart-breaking discovery for us.

Ash and I appreciated the street dogs we encountered. We would especially light up when we saw the same dog on another day. There’s the redwolf-type dog with the piercing white eyes who comes by the pizzería at night. In the afternoon we sometimes see a pair of dogs, one a large shaggy matted mop-type, and the other a small red spitz-type. At the bottom of the hill is a dog bed that I’ve only ever seen a black lab-type dog in, accompanied by his/her giant Newfoundland-type dog friend whom often sleeps with his/her head on a pile a biscuits left out for them. In Laguna Verde we were escorted to the bus stop by a blonde lab-type dog whose portrait is the banner for “South America”on my website. We started carrying around denta-sticks as treats for the dogs. Many people leave out food for the dogs, so we wanted to follow suit and take care of their hunger as well as their teeth. The homeless hounds are everywhere. There’s an estimated twenty-thousand dogs in Valparaíso. They are treated very well in this city, unlike some other places in the world. And while they may be offered food and water by the locals, few are given veterinary care or even vaccinated. Disease is mother nature’s way of controlling the population. These tough animals live a hard life.

We’ve had a few parties in the pizzería since we moved in. The parties tend to move outside as the night progresses and more guests lose their inhibitions for cigarettes. Out of nowhere a street dog or two will join the festivities. We give them pats and food – we want to show care for these beautiful creatures who provide us with some extra company. Some would stick around until the party was over. One skinny black dog with a large tumour on his neck even had a little snooze on the side walk beside our feet. But it’s typical that when the party is over and the people disperse, so do the dogs.

It was a Friday evening party to say goodbye to our housemate and friend, Christin. We cooked veggies over an outdoor fire that was fuelled by the termite-eaten wood we removed from our host’s ceiling during the week. It was a chilly night but our neighbours still sat outside with the smokers, and to keep me company as I rotated sliced eggplant on el asado — the barbecue. I turned around to see a pair of dogs had joined the party. A white German Shepherd-type dog, and a Labrador-type dog. The German Shepherd was very skinny, and she must have been in heat because the young male was humping the air beside her trying to get her attention. She could barely stand, her hind leg was so swollen it looked like an orange was in the place where her hock should be. The whole leg twitched with a spasm that never stopped. She happily ate her denta-stick as well as the one meant for the lab who was too busy trying to mate. We tried to get the lab to leave, but he was persistent, even ignoring the female’s growl and bites. We put objects and our bodies between the pair, and if he got too close we pulled him by his scruff. With each moment of peace we offered our four-legged friend she would lay down and close her eyes, getting as many micro-sleeps as she could.

We went inside for dinner and to refill our glasses. But it wasn’t long before the party migrated outdoors again. To my surprise the pair of dogs were still there. Hours passed with conversation, laughs, and music requests. But the dogs stayed, the male still humping the air, and the female still rejecting his advances. We didn’t hesitate for a second when our kind host, Rodo, suggested we take her inside the pizzería for the night. We stacked planks of wood to make a bed above the cold concrete floor and grabbed a few pieces of clothing we could spare to keep her warm. We called her in, but she could barely walk and she hesitated at the doorway as most street dogs learn not to enter houses. Ash gently picked her up and placed her on the bed. We brought in the water bowl from outside and offered her more dinner scraps. Then we stood back and looked at her. She looked back at us with a mirror of relief.

Cariña’s first night in the pizzeria.

She cried all night, her leg twitching much more rapidly than before. She was in so much pain and discomfort. If she fell asleep any small noise would startle her awake. The psychological wound from a hard life on the streets kept her from relaxing deeply. Christin and Ash did their best to comfort her, giving her slow pats to soothe her pain. By morning we were all sleep deprived and even more troubled by the plight of this overnight guest. Ash wanted to take her to the vet to have her leg x-rayed. He started looking for vets that would be open on Saturday. But when the complication of after-care in the event of surgery to reset or remove her leg was mentioned he started to look for a shelter too. Our plan was to pay for her vet bills if we could find someone to offer her time and a place to heal. Most places we contacted didn’t reply, possibly because it was the weekend. We couldn’t find the whereabouts of any shelter in the town despite online articles mentioning that there are more than a hundred in the region. We started contacting organisations in Viña Del Mar with only one response — Paec Organización No Gubernamental, found on Facebook. The information they provided was very helpful for pointing us in the right direction.

We spent the day enjoying her company, and doing our best to care for her. We gave her food, affection, warmth, and several opportunities to go outside. We would sit outside on the curb and she would wander down the street to find a private spot to go to the toilet. A few times we thought she had left us for good and we went back inside. Only a few minutes later someone would open the door to find those big brown eyes and dirty white fur waiting patiently to be invited back in. We did not force her stay with us — she was a street dog and she was free to return to that life. But she was always pleased to see us. Even if we were only coming down the stairs, the rhythmic, happy thumping of her tail created a false echo to our footsteps. We couldn’t help but give her a pat on the head every single time we walked past. With each meal and nap the sadness left her eyes, the hopelessness lifted from her shoulders, and the energy returned to her feet. She held her head and tail higher with each grin and cuddle we shared with her. We named her “Cariña” — similar to the Spanish word for “darling”.

Ash, Karyna, Patrick, and I (not pictured) took turns carrying Cariña to the vet.

Saturday evening, with the help of our friends next door, we carried her to the nearest vet. She surprised us with her complete and total trust in us. She didn’t struggle once, even when we passed her from one pair of arms to the next, nor when we climbed down steep stairs or walked through traffic. Our friends, Patrick and Karyna — the beautiful and kind humans they are, stayed with us to translate the situation between the vet and us. This was the most difficult situation I’ve encountered on this trip so far. The vet didn’t seem worried about her leg, as it turned out it wasn’t the most life threatening affliction she was carrying. Cariña had distemper. I had never seen this viral infection before. In Australia routine vaccination has made this highly contagious disease very rare. But once the symptoms were explained to me it was obvious to see. The tremor in her leg, a high fever, diarrhoea, and hyperkeratosis (thickening of the skin) on her nose and paw pads, all painting a deadly picture of her health.

Hyperkeratosis on Cariña’s paws.

The vet said she could do a quick test in house, but it can produce a false negative and the sample would need to be sent to Santiago for confirmation, as she was sure of her diagnosis. She explains there is no cure for the disease, only treatment for the symptoms as her body fights the virus. Many street dogs in Valparaíso catch the virus and only the strong survive, most with residual neurological symptoms. We were given a prescription for vitamin supplements, a thirty day course of antibiotics, and told she may not pull through. Our friends explained that we don’t have that kind of time to give her treatments and asked if a shelter could take her. The vet gave us the contact for the municipality office where we would have to explain our case and maybe they would provide us with details for a shelter. But shelters would be unlikely to take in a street dog with distemper as the vaccine is not 100% effective and they are unwilling to risk their healthy animals. Then the option of euthanasia was offered to us, but it is required that we take the body with us. Very few people in Valparaíso have access to a backyard, including us, so we were given a flyer for a crematorium in Viña Del Mar that could pick up the body. Before we could come to a decision we were instructed to pay for the initial consultation and leave as the clinic was closing.

On the first-floor landing, outside the locked clinic door of what we thought was a 24-hour practice, the four of us stood in a circle around our furry friend who patiently laid on the floor in front of us. We discussed our options again and expressed our frustrations at the situation. We could try to find a shelter in the hope that one would take her in. But the municipality was closed until Monday and there we would find more challenges with time constraints, language barriers, and transport to get the dog to a shelter. We are travellers, we have no car, and we work most days in exchange for our accommodation. The place we are living in isn’t ours and we didn’t want to overstep our boundaries by keeping a street dog who was only meant to stay one night. We couldn’t release her back to the street as she was highly contagious and we would only be condemning more dogs to suffer distemper. We could have her euthanised, but what do we do with her body? We discussed finding a nearby forest for burial, but we were concerned with ground water contamination, not to mention we can’t bring her onto a bus. We were emotionally exhausted, frustrated with the situation, there was a complication at every turn. It seemed to us that no amount of money was going to save the life of the happy perra before us. I felt anxious and sick in the stomach. I didn’t know what was the right thing to do. We were angry that we couldn’t even offer Cariña a chance to live. Our friends, in one final favour for the night, called an uber and asked the driver to take us and Cariña back to the pizzería.

The next morning we made the difficult decision to have her put to sleep and cremated. We asked Rodo if he could call to organise the cremation and take us to the clinic for the procedure. He arranged for the crematorium to pick up the dog from the clinic at 6pm and the vet would do the procedure at 5pm and hold her body for collection. Then we all got to working on the renovations for the day. But as we hammered, sawed, and drilled, Rodo expressed his concerns not only with the large amount of money we would need to pay, but also that cremation is unnatural. “Fire destroys the spirit,” he said. “She won’t be reincarnated.” He suggested an alternative plan to have her euthanised in the morning when the vet opens and then he will drive us to a nearby area, on the other side of the iconic hills of Valparaíso, where we can bury her. He made a very good argument — “If you want to help more dogs you cannot be paying for cremation each time, you will hurt your travel budget.” Of course we agreed with his wisdom and empathy.

When we came home from work, Cariña greeted us with a helicopter tail and a happy tongue hanging from the side of her tired smile. If that wasn’t a strong enough sign she’d missed us we found my sandals had magically migrated onto her bed. We spent our last night showering Cariña with love and affection. I cooked her dinner with everything we could find in our vegan pantry, while Ash sat beside her and told her she was beautiful and loved. I prepared a meal of rice, TVP (soy meat), and veggies, with peanut-butter, turmeric (to reduce inflammation), and nutritional yeast stirred through. We fed her four small meals a day as we didn’t want to overload her body which may be accustomed to fasting for days at a time. And she may not be in the habit of stopping when she is full. Then we sat outside with her as she had been locked in the pizzería all day. We talked to the neighbours who walked by and were surprised to see the dog still here. We explained that she would be going down for the long nap in the morning and we asked one of our neighbours if we could take some flowers from his garden for her grave. Cariña hobbled around and found a broken hub cap and some bright pink bougainvillea flowers — things to play with. She was happy to relax beside us and accepted pats from anyone willing to offer. If a street dog roamed too close she would warn them to stay away — this was her pack.

Cariña’s meals – TVP, Rice, and Veggies!

She followed us back inside and watched as we set up our sleeping bags on the downstairs bed. She loved to watch the room, it was comforting to her. We moved her bed next to ours so she could be close to us for a reassuring pat when the night terrors bothered her. Then we moved the dining table that was blocking her view as she needed to be in line of sight to the door —on the other side roamed the ghosts of her old life deep into the night. She tried to follow me into the shower, she didn’t like it when a pack member couldn’t be seen. Since Christin had left to continue her travels I felt comfortable to leave the bathroom door open and I threw my work socks onto her bed for her to play with. As our last evening together grew to a close we fed Cariña some of our sleeping pills to help her rest peacefully, which she didn’t hesitate to eat straight from our hands — she trusted us completely. Ash laid beside her in her bed, his arms in a gentle yet protective hold around her bony frame. As I watched the pair drift off to sleep I got to thinking about the role my loving boyfriend has played in helping me stick to my moral compass. Deep down I envied his ability to love animals so openly and unconditionally. Without him I fear this story would lack compassion for I still fear the pain that comes from losing love even after all my years of learning to open my heart. But as I gaze down upon his peaceful face and loving affection for dear Cariña I feel myself looking up to him and his freedom for expression.

On our final morning together I took Cariña for a walk through the neighbour’s garden to pick flowers. I was making a bouquet to memorialise a grave for our friend who hadn’t even died yet. She was accompanying me while I prepared for her death, her wobbling footsteps hot on my heels. Ash picked a song to play for her burial, London Grammar’s “May The Best” from the album “Truth Is Beautiful”. We packed a backpack with incense, a plastic garbage bag, gloves, the bluetooth speaker, and plenty of tissues. We picked up the shovel and the jar of flowers, asked Cariña to follow us, and loaded everything into the back seat of the little VW beetle. I helped Cariña into the car, though I’m sure she would have hopped in on her own if her legs would allow it. It was at this moment I struggled to keep control of my emotions. On the drive down to the vet my mind started racing. Who was I to decide when another being should die? What gives me the right to end a life? Her life is not mine for the taking. Rodo explained he will drop us off, find parking elsewhere, and pick us up when we’re ready. In hindsight we should have offered to pay for parking at the clinic so he could accompany us as a translator. Or perhaps this was something we needed to do alone. I carried Cariña up the flight of stairs and sifted my brain for all the Spanish words I know, making a mental list of words I would need to look up the translation for before speaking to the vet.

As we sat in the waiting room, Cariña resting in Ash’s arms, we could hear her rasping breath — crackles in her lungs had developed. This was a new symptom, the sounds of pneumonia, a common complication of the disease. It helped me to accept that this was the right decision — she would not have survived much longer on the streets. Even though I felt a fire to fight for her life. I knew we were giving her something that few others could. For three days she had consistent food, a warm bed, and loving people who were excited to see her. This is everything she wanted from life. This was perhaps more than she had ever received before. She could die peacefully, happy in the arms of people who care about life. Who cared about her life.

It felt like forever before we were seen by someone, and I mustered up all my courage to navigate through the language barrier. But after some time, and much patience from the vet as I tried to explain the situation and answer his questions, we were all on the same page that it was best for Cariña to be relieved of her suffering. The first injection was the sedative. Dear Cariña didn’t flinch, Ash holding and stroking her head, trusting us to the very end. The room was silent, or maybe I just stopped listening. Alone with my thoughts and the weight of my decisions I fought back the tears. When I chose to be vegan I promised myself I would never again ask another human to kill an animal. I felt guilty asking this young, kind-faced vet to end the life of another. I’m sure he entered this profession wanting to heal animals and here I am asking for death. With each bottle he sucked out the deadly liquid. And with each injection her life was squeezed out. Until she wheezed her last breath.

We thanked the vet for being so kind, and he responded with something that I didn’t fully understand, but I mirrored his expression of gratitude as he shook our hands. We carried the black bag down to the waiting car and set off for the hills. Up and up and up along the steep, winding roads of Valparaíso, then down a bumpy dirt road where we found a place to lay our friend to rest. The grave was shallow as the earth was compacted harder than we expected, so we collected a dozen heavy rocks and a wooden board to protect her body. With the jar of flowers in place, a stick of incense lit, and London Grammar filling our ears, the three of us sat on the ground and silently said our goodbyes. I took a photo of her grave, though I knew I wouldn’t need it — I could feel the memory being written with permanence.

Rest In Peace Cariña

We came home and the house felt empty and sad. In the air all we could hear was ourselves. In her food bowl a meal that won’t be eaten. In her bed was a half chewed bougainvillea flower. We sent some photos of Cariña to our friends who had showed her care and supported us through this process. They responded with many kind words about how inspirational this weekend had been. But I feel Cariña was the inspiring one. She was the embodiment of values I see in myself — trusting, grateful, and hopeful. Values I need to see in others. She came to us for help. And I am angry I could not offer her more time. I was left with the only option of a “kind death”. Even if I know it was the right choice, it makes me feel sick.

We had not adopted a street dog. Cariña adopted us. From the moment we invited her into our home she welcomed us into her pack. She thanked us with love and loyalty. She was the kind of dog who could touch your heart in an instant. We were fortunate enough to receive her beautiful affection and wisdom for three days. For a being who didn’t speak my language, she communicated better than most people. She was honest with what she wanted. She needed what most people dare not ask for. She needed love to feel alive before she would die. She got more love than any other street dog could ever dream of. She had plenty of opportunity to return to her old life. Sometimes she would wander down the street and we were sure she had left us. But minutes later she would return and sit by us until we got cold and went back inside. She was the most well-behaved dog I’ve ever known. She never ventured further in the house than she was invited to. She never went for the open food packets that were well within her reach unless we gave them to her. She would sit by the door when she wanted to go out. She sought reassurance from us often, resting her head in my lap and looking up at me with those wise brown eyes. She just wanted to know she was good enough. She just wanted to be friends with us. She just wanted to know she was deserving of love. She was all of those things and more. I hope she felt she got what she needed from this life. And although I don’t believe in reincarnation, I hope she gets a better chance in the next life. Because that’s what she had — hope. And that’s what she taught me too. It’s okay to have hope.

This whole weekend has left me with a better understanding of my values. I was raised to believe that money has greater value than happiness, and sadness was a constant feature to life. “It’s better to cry in your Ferrari, than at a bus stop,” my family would say. On some accounts they are right, sadness is a part of life, but so is death. What is money good for if I couldn’t buy more time with my four-legged friend? We will witness the passing of many of our loved ones before we face our own. After witnessing so much death in my life I have finally come to realise there is something I value greater than money — gratitude. I see it in my volunteering work, I am happier exchanging my time for appreciation than I ever was as a slave to my salary. As the emotion of the day settles, and I accept that Cariña is gone, I am still left with a feeling of regret. I don’t regret the decisions I made, merely one that I didn’t — I forgot to thank her. When I think of her dirty furry face I am filled with unspoken gratitude for the time we did have. I wish I had whispered those words into her ear just once.

“Thank you, Cariña.”

~Sam

Myself, Cariña, and Ash.

As a side note here I would like to list the costs associated with Cariña’s vet care. We tried to find this information so we could have the correct amount of money transferred to our debit cards and ready to go. Maybe we were typing the wrong thing into the search engine, or perhaps it’s not written anywhere in English, but we couldn’t find a hint of prices anywhere. So here it is for anyone who is curious:

Private Consult: $20,000 chilean pesos ($40 AUD)
Euthanasia: $30,000 cp ($60 AUD)
Cremation: $110,000 cp ($220 AUD)
*Conversions are approximate, and costs are to be used as a guide only.

2 thoughts on ““Cariña” – The Tale of a Street Dog with Distemper

  1. Pingback: 7 Reasons Why I Love Valparaíso, Chile – Earthling Echo

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