Magazine  >  Issue 45  >  Chile Dogs Heat Up

Chile Dogs Heat Up

Earthquake shakes writer back to the States.
Story and photography by Lorraine Chittock

Will you stop scratching?” I mumble from a deep sleep. Fleas. When I reach over to comfort Dog, my hand grazes the wall. Vibrating. Like crazy. Raised in California, I don’t usually get alarmed by earthquakes, but our cabin is constructed of wood, on stilts and perched on an extremely steep hill overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Chile is having an 8.8 magnitude earthquake. During the next 90 seconds the capital of Santiago will be displaced almost 10 inches west in what will be Chile’s second worst earthquake. We’re in La Ballena, 200 miles north of the epicenter.

When the shaking worsens, I fling open the window and jump out stark naked onto the deck. Boxes fall from atop the wardrobe as I lift Dog and Bruiser outside. Once my canine companions are safe, I reach back inside to grab a comforter to drape around my body. My laptop containing all the files for my new book Los Mutts, my passport, clothing and shoes stay inside. In a fraction of a second I have decided what’s truly important in my life.

We keep watch on the ocean—calm though at this moment a tsunami is devastating several coastal towns including Talhuanaco where our pack once camped for months. No electricity. The blackout will affect 93 percent of Chile’s population. Amazingly, there is no damage to the three-bedroom cabin we rent for $200 a month.

Six hours before the earthquake, I’d clicked “purchase” for an airline ticket to Dallas—a speaking and book tour awaits me. Santiago’s International airport suffers structural damage. All flights are canceled. Communication is sporadic, but I’m able to reschedule. I check for news on how animals are coping.

Two years before, Mount Chaitén had erupted in Patagonia. Just as in New Orleans at the time of Hurricane Katrina, residents of Chaitén were forced to evacuate the volcanic eruption without their pets. More than 600 dogs were left behind. Animal lovers in Chile mobilized to create their country’s first animal rescue operation. One of the first organizations on the ground was CEFU (Control Etico de la Fauna Urbana or Ethical Treatment for Urban Animals,

The 2010 earthquake affects a greater area. Entire cities are devastated and families are forced to leave in search of food and supplies. CEFU immediately begins gathering volunteers and medical supplies to help the animals. Many of the photos in Los Mutts are taken in Chile, including a few featuring CEFU in action.

While animal lovers rise to the occasion, I scurry around getting ready for our flight. Leashes. I can count on one hand the times I’ve needed them in the past four years. During my first months in Mexico I was stunned by how few Latinos used them, even on busy streets. Owners trust that their dogs will watch for cars. With street dogs, of which there are many, rules of the road are often passed generation to generation by traffic savvy canine mothers. Pups not paying attention get injured, or worse. Though limping canines are not a rare sight, startlingly few bodies lie on highways, considering the huge preponderance of loose dogs.

On quiet streets I cautiously began doing the same with Dog and Bruiser. Wandering off lead gave them the freedom to sniff dogs they liked and avoid those they didn’t. Snarls were exchanged but rarely escalated. More than four years later and with stray mutt encounters in the hundreds, Bruiser and Dog each had only one scratch on both their faces. America will be different. I put their old leads in crates that I’ve purchased from Chile’s Home Depot. At the airport I drop off the luggage at the ticket counter before driving our trusty van to the customs office—a gift for the Chilean government, since I’m unable to legally sell it. Dog, Bruiser and I take a taxi back to the terminal. Because of earthquake damage, huge tents are erected for flights within Chile. The three of us enter and exit through three. Each time Dog and Bruiser are shooed by officials assuming they’re strays. “Son mis perros. They are my dogs,” I reply laughing. A simple misunderstanding; I still haven’t put on their collars. While living miles from the nearest town, there’s never been a need.

Also unfamiliar is tarmac, cement and glass. I feel like a country-bumpkin. Bruiser’s grin of excitement spreads to anxiety when we arrive at the American Airlines counter. Dog recognizes the sheets I put inside her crate and immediately dashes “home” and curls up inside. Bruiser, a dog who loves his freedom more than any other, is horrified about being incarcerated. He didn’t fare well flying from his native country of Kenya to San Francisco. But there is no way to return to America other than by air. Driving back is out of the question. I watch horrified as two men carry my beloved, captive canines to a conveyor belt. Dog and Bruiser watch horrified from inside their plastic cages. What have I done?

Once I arrive at Gate 27, I grill everyone in an American Airlines uniform regarding if my dogs are on board. On the tarmac at the bottom of the airline stairs two personnel reassure me that my dogs are already in cargo. I’m relieved. And scared. Dog and Bruiser are both 13 years old. For four years I’ve entertained fantasies of meeting someone with a private jet so we could fly as a pack. That person never materialized. There is no choice.

It’s a very long 12 hours. I had booked a seat as close to the front as possible to ensure I’m one of the first to disembark. Once out of the plane I jostle through other passengers who stroll leisurely along the hallways. The woman at passport control takes forever to stamp my documents. At baggage claim I drag two big boxes off the conveyor belt onto a trolley. I’m so focused on my luggage, I don’t notice two animal crates already on the ground. Dog and Bruiser!

Ten feet and paws prance, leap and bounce in ecstasy after 14 hours of separation. Airline officials watch with misty eyes. No one says, “Dogs aren’t allowed outside their crates!”

An American Airlines worker asks if I need help. “Yes, please!” Two loose dogs are added to my two huge boxes, two big dog crates, a duffl e bag plus laptop. I’m only 105 pounds. “The dogs need to be back in the crates,” the worker says apologetically. Dog whimpers with heartfelt sounds I’ve never before heard.

If you want to smuggle illegal goods into America, dogs could be the ticket. Instead of lining up like everyone else on the plane, we’re led to a special agriculture section. I’m the only one in line. “Rabies?” the man asks. I hand him all my paperwork: the rabies and distemper certificates from the vet and the form from SAG, Chile’s governmental agricultural office.

Meanwhile, the airline bellhop is asking numerous questions about my exotic dogs. After such a long absence, I’ve forgotten my Kenyan mutts resemble dingoes to many Americans.

“What’s in your boxes?” asks the official baggage controller. “Four years worth of junk!” I reply. Americans know about stuff. It’s flowing from everyone’s garage, cupboards and storage units. The boxes are sealed shut with duct tape. I’ll never be able to get all my “junk” back in the box should the man want to do a search. While crossing numerous land borders, the novelty factor of two traveling dogs meant we were often waved through customs without further ado. This man too nods his head for us to pass. Maybe America isn’t so different? The airline bellhop wheels everything out to the taxi stand. Because of the earthquake craziness, booking a rental car to drive a further two hours to a friend’s farm seemed too much. Instead, I’d secured a complimentary stay at Dallas’s W Hotel. “Doggies, we’ll adjust to the US in style!The first five taxis don’t take pets. Finally a large dog-friendly taxi arrives. The driver is an elderly man who looks like he’s stepped out of a documentary on sharecropping in the Deep South. “They ain’t gonna bite, are they?” the faux sharecropper drawls. “No, of course not,” I reply. Smart man. He knows if Dog and Bruiser climb aboard, his taxi becomes their territory. We skim through 6 am. traffic. Greeting us at the W Hotel is the most refreshing sight we could possibly imagine: an elegant outdoor fountain with endless streams of cascading water. The dogs are parched. While the bellhop removes boxes and bags from the taxi, Bruiser and Dog drink deeply from Dallas’s most appreciated dog bowl. The leads get hopelessly tangled while maneuvering through the double set of entrance doors. “I’ve forgotten how to do this,” I mutter. At reception I unleash Dog. She stands dutifully by my side. Gold tiles in the elevator lobby reflect three sets of eyes: all like deer caught in headlights. We share an elevator with a cluster of Dallas women. Big hair bobbing, one remarks with a Texas twang, “Ya’ll have such well-mannered dawgs. Mine are jus’ misbehaving, they’ve never acted so sweet since the day they was born.” Little does she know if the “wrong” dog wandered through the lobby, Dog and Bruiser would quickly turn into demons. “Why thank you,” I reply. Our room is huge and overlooks high-rises adorned with huge squares reflecting the cityscape. Mirrored tile everywhere. I’m dizzy from so many manmade materials. Four years in Latin America brought me closer to natural panoramas like the Andes Mountains, Tierra del Fuego and the Atacama desert—not cityscapes. A scalding rain-forest shower pummels feelings of uncertainty from my body and soul. As I dry, Dog barks maniacally. I rush from the bathroom stark naked. She’s crouched low to the ground, her tail swishing back and forth furiously. My jet-lagged brain decides there must be a rodent hiding beneath the plush ottoman. “At the W? This is America in style?” I crouch beside her and peer cautiously. My two eyes look back. At the base of the ottoman is mirrored tile. “Doggie! You’re barking at your reflection!” America is going to take some getting used to…

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