When Paula called about a dog in trouble on the University grounds, we grabbed our box of supplies, collars, muzzles and leashes and jumped in the truck to see if we could lend a hand. On the way over, we quickly reviewed some of the techniques for moving an injured animal safely and humanely, and I mentally calculated a dose of sedation in case the dog was in too much pain or happened to be too aggressive to approach.
We knew more or less what we could be getting ourselves into. There are literally millions of free-roaming dogs in Chile, living in the streets completely unsupervised and vulnerable to the everyday accidents that happen when dogs are unprotected by their human owners. Many of these do have owners, and some don’t. There is a gang of dogs that lives on the University grounds here in Valdivia and they are fed by students, staff and vendors, but they are true street dogs with no permanent owners. Some are tame and like people, but others can be very aggressive especially when trying to restrain them.
We arrived at the alleyway alongside the library where we had arranged to meet Paula. When she saw our truck she hurried over and started telling us the story. Paula is one of the many vendors that occupies an outdoor courtyard of sorts and she sells coffee. She comes every day and knows all the dogs, at least by appearance. This dog, she believes is very old and is a regular on the university grounds. Locals call him “Pasillo” which means alley. Today when she showed up for work, he was there as usual, but something was not right. He was lying on the ground in the middle of the sidewalk and it appeared that he couldn’t get up on his own. Paula and her friend Sebastián, another vendor, gently tried to move him out of the way, but he arched his back and screamed in pain. Eventually, he got up on his own, but continued to scream in pain and could barely walk. After an hour of this, Paula started calling around for help.
We approached the vendors’ stands, and she pointed him out, lying just to the side of one of the main doors of the university library. The door was in constant motion- open, closed, open, closed, with a stream of busy, talking, laughing students pouring in and out, and he still just lay there, on his side, not even lifting his head, and no-one seemed to notice. This is the legacy of living in a country where street dogs are a part of the landscape- no-one really sees them anymore, and too often, their suffering also goes unnoticed.
We went to him slowly to see what kind of reaction we would get. A painful dog can also be a dangerous dog, and we were ready. But this medium-sized, somewhat non-descript black dog, had soft, gentle eyes, and allowed us to put a leash on him without a hitch. We offered him something to eat and he readily gulped down anything we gave him. I coaxed him to rise with the offer of more snacks and he did so, painfully. No-one knew what had happened to him, and why from one day to the next, he was so painful. I gently touched him all over to see if there were broken bones, swelling, blood or wounds as an indicator of what might have happened. But there was nothing. It was only until he tried to walk that it became evident just how poorly he was. He could barely stay upright, both legs on his right side seemed to be unable to coordinate themselves to walk properly and he staggered and stumbled from side to side with his back arched in pain, screaming with every step. This was clearly an old dog suffering tremendously and the rest of the canine gang seemed to be quite ready to help nature take its course. They circled around him like hungry sharks, and those dogs were big and intimidating. That was enough for me to see that the poor fella needed more than we could offer right then and there- he needed to go to the clinic where he could at least be in a safe, warm place. We put a big blanket around him, and two of us gently lifted him up and carried him to the truck.
Arriving at the clinic, we carried him in and immediately started a full physical exam to see where this pain was coming from. Pasillo was suffering from a wide range of serious neurological deficits causing difficulty in all regular movements from eating to walking, plus signs of pain in his entire body every time he was touched or moved. This was a very complex case! Pasillo is a very old fella with a very serious problem. He was definitely not a candidate for painkillers, an overnight rest, and then toss him back to his old stomping grounds at the university! But what then? We decided to go step by step and start with something to help him with his painful symptoms, give him 24 hours of rest and good food, and re-evaluate. With each passing 24 hours, Pasillo was just a bit better. His pain was significantly reduced, he gained weight right away and he was able to get around, albeit slowly…but he was still not strong enough to hold his ground on his own. Meanwhile, back at the university, the vendors were wracking their brains trying to find a solution for Pasillo. They knew that he could not go back to the streets, but none of them had the means or a suitable place to keep a dog like Pasillo. We, at the clinic, were also growing very attached to him and dreaded with each passing day, the moment that we had to decide Pasillo’s fate. We just couldn’t keep him in the clinic in perpetuity, and we had to come to a decision before the weekend.
On Thursday night, driving home with Guillermo, we talked about how much Pasillo had impacted us all. Of course, we are unable to rescue every animal that needs a home, but there are some animals that touch a place inside you, and you just can’t walk away. He was one of those. What did Pasillo really need? He is a really old boy that seems tired out from a tough life in the streets. He probably has a million other things wrong with him that we don’t even know about yet, and the likelihood that he will actually get better is low. He really seems to need a soft place to sleep, a bowl of food and clean water, and a gentle hand to stroke his soft head every day and tell him he is a good boy. Could we offer him that? We thought of our home and our dogs and our rescue horse Dulce, and thought that he might just fit in fine. So, on Friday night after work, we made the journey up the long hill to our house together with Pasillo in the back seat of the truck. When we arrived, the other dogs bustled around him excitedly, sniffing curiously at this strange newcomer. But not a hackle was raised, not a growl was uttered. Off he trundled to explore his new digs in the country with the other dogs- truly the easiest dog introduction I have ever witnessed. We made up a big fluffy bed of hay in the barn, gave him some food and water and a big cuddle, and before we closed the door to the sweet-smelling barn, he was already tucked in bed.
In the morning, while doing the rounds- feeding and cleaning the horses and the chickens, Pasillo stayed glued to my leg. The horses came over to say hi, but they allowed him in their corral with no problem. Pasillo seems to have adapted well to his new surroundings and his new gang. He is so gentle, and so undemanding that I think he has finally found his forever home, whether he lives for another month or for 5 more years, he is welcome to stay.