The first dogs I saw were large, running, and smiling. I was experiencing the culture shock of the taxi, one which felt more like a ride at a fair than transportation. The pair wove, tongues lolling, through this packed intersection of fluid, honking traffic with a sense of camaraderie and freedom. They wore not leash nor mark of ownership that I could tell. Yet they navigated traffic and looked like they were having a wonderful time together.
The dogs that make up a backdrop for the streets of Cuzco seem completely independent of the people. They scurry on social calls and missions that look like assignments of great importance. They get into fights. They make love.
It is hard to know exactly what the people of the city think of these ubiquitous canines. The fact that they aren’t corralled and gassed en masse in clay crematoriums to solve an “urban nuisance” is a clue that they are considered very differently by the people here. I did a small bit of research on what others thought of the dogs and so many see them as just that, nuisances, forming coalitions to try and put an end to this problem of feral dogs that fill the streets of Cuzco.
One volunteer organization, the Cusco Dog Campaign, claims the fact a problem exists is obvious: “As anyone who has been to Peru will say, there is a dire need for a program to help with the immense amounts of street animals, namely dogs. […] we can no longer stand idly by.” This sentiment is echoed on blogs from the small and personal to the huffingtonpost. Many travelers fear them. The travelers that don’t fear them, fear for them and wish to somehow save them.
That these creatures are “mongrels,” “animal control problems,” or “vectors for rabies” appears to be a condition of outsider attitudes. It is a problem created in the minds of the concerned foreign traveler, one who expects dogs to stay constrained in the same small boxes of their countries and home cultures.
For example, one writer commented on the dog problem and was instantly rebuked by a local: “They suffer and survive just like the people.” I asked someone here about the quote and he agreed. “Like the Cuzceno people” he said, “the dogs have to work to survive.” It would be very interesting to see how widespread that this narrative of suffering goes, and how true it is, especially because it is not completely the sense I get. To me it seems that dirty, mangy, damp* dogs appear to be enjoying life just as much as the groomed.
Moreover, wonderfully filthy dogs – those ones which might be considered abandoned – are, in fact, not stray at all. After getting to know them and their patterns a little better it is obvious they are cared for. They keep to a certain territory and can be seen sitting or sleeping dutifully in the doorways of the families they belong to.
How does the canine dine? The dogs know where people dump their trash, smell out nutrition, and tear the bags apart to get to the flavor. They can also be seen munching grass. If you inspect their feces (a necessary step for anyone interested in the mysterious diets of animals), they are varied but often seen with a decent ratio of grasses, solids, and juices.
However, it can be deceiving to think that dogs are merely scavengers. Dog food is sold in quantity and feeds many canine bellies. I asked a local about what goes on inside the homes, and he said, “Some dogs need more care. They buy special food for them. They have to pay a lot of money to keep the dog, but it depends on the dog. People love their dogs. Kids love the dogs. They treat them as a member of the family. They are more like one of you.” In other words, these dogs don’t survive by scavenging and begging. They are fed both because they provide services and because they maintain a vital family role.
To see dogs as family members is a common way to see dogs in the United States, but in Cuzco they are not perpetually bound to home or leash. They are independent. They work for their food. They are contributing members of the family, perhaps you could even say, of society. They socialize, go for walks, get sick, and get into trouble. They have adventures which depend on their own will, rather than being served a life under the control of the humans that own them.
One of the biggest differences I see is in their attitudes. The dogs here are more casual. Rather than living for the daily walk, that ten minutes or so of giddy, sensory stimulation, the dogs of Cuzco seem clear headed. They are not ravenous for attention like the yipping canines of the states. When offered food, they will just as often refuse it. I don’t see the separation anxiety that characterizes the house-trained domesticates of the United States. It might be because they are always connected. They are immersed rather than cut off. Travelers have much less to fear than they think. When they see dogs in the street they assume they are the same creatures as those crazed, traumatized canines of their own country. But nappy or napping on the streets, these dogs are balanced.
*From what I have seen, a damp dog is a sign that it has been recently reprimanded for getting too near food. Market women dip their hands into buckets of water and fling trails at them rid the unwanted attention. I’ve seen yipping, soaked puppies bounding down staircases, probably a sign they were just recently caught with red paws.