Colombia is an incredible country, geographically remarkable with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. Not to mention the impressive Andes which extend through a number of South American countries, Colombia being one of them.
As a tourist I’ve visited Bogota, the capital, located in a valley in the Andes, Pereira in the Coffee Region, and Cartagena on the Caribbean Coast. So much history and culture in every city, but Cartagena always calls me back.
On initial trips to Cartagena I stayed and played within the inner walled section of the city, the wall being tangible evidence of past Spanish colonization. El Centro is beautiful. Plazas, hidden patios, and ornate balconies hanging over the streets. All of the elements you expect in a place known for colonial architecture. So much to see in that fascinating old area. The more I visited, the more I noticed.
Including quite a few stray dogs.
On my last visit I ventured out a bit and stayed in a beachfront condo in the Bocagrande area of Cartagena, just minutes from El Centro. Here, instead of old colonial styles and fortress walls you see high-rises, hotel chains, and malls. Fun to pretend I was a local, simply crossing the street for groceries at a neighborhood market. Nearby shops offered hair cutting, dry cleaning, and other routine needs. Each time I took a walk I noticed something new.
Including even more stray dogs.
By the second morning of this particular visit I began to comprehend the magnitude of the stray dog issue. What spurred that realization may have been the dirty white dog sniffing around the steps of the condo, the three hound mixes running together across the street, or possibly the black dog sitting by a dumpster casually licking two whining puppies. Seven strays seen in just the time it took to walk across the street for coffee creamer. It got to me.
I began to obsess. In spite of their numbers (those seven were the tip of the iceberg) I rarely heard barking, fighting, and definitely no playing. Dogs roamed across sidewalks, rooted through trash bins, and sought bits of shade during the heat of the day. They were silent ghosts in the streets, almost zombie-like as they moved through the neighborhood doing – well, whatever it is that homeless dogs do.
Besides the occasional cab driver braking to allow one to cross the road, I saw little acknowledgment of their existence. People went about daily routines without much regard for the four-legged objects they hurried past. Instead of pestering and begging for food, hungry dogs stood and watched as sandwiches or snacks were eaten, checking for scraps only after the person moved on. Theirs seemed to be detached dismal lives of rejection.
On the last morning there I walked again to the market across the street. Outside, a young girl ate breakfast while a small brown dog stood motionless behind her. As she turned to toss her trash in the bin she noticed the dog. She said something sweetly in a baby voice, leaned down, and patted the dog’s head. The girl turned to leave and missed seeing the dog feebly wag its tail. Just once. Heartbreaking that from my perspective it appeared to have taken a minute for the dog to recognize the girl’s gesture as an expression of kindness.
But how kind was it, I wondered? That incident reminded me of a story I read as a child. I can’t recall the title or author, but it involved a puppy lost on the street. As the frightened little dog searched for home it was yelled at, kicked, and mistreated in various ways by several people. But as the story goes, the cruelest person of all was the one who actually stopped, patted its head and spoke kind words, yet still turned and walked away.
Loss of hope is a terrible thing. The invisible dogs of Cartagena have precious little from the start.
In spite of this sad reality, I once again left Cartagena with a great appreciation and love for the history, culture, and cuisine of this amazing city. But I also left with a somber curiosity about the plight of the strays. When I got home I began to search for answers.
The problem is not unique to Cartagena nor to Colombia as a whole. Stray dogs can be anywhere and everywhere, but they are apparently more of an issue in many Latin American countries where policies on animal welfare, if they exist at all, are often at various stages of development. As I searched specifically for steps being taken in Cartagena, I wasn’t encouraged. There are few substantial policies or programs and I found nothing that instilled much hope.
Until, that is, I clicked a link to the website for “Cartagena Paws”.
This organization, founded by Maureen Cattieu, was launched in 2015. She and her team work to carry out a mission promoting the adoption and fostering of animals and a capture/release program which spays or neuters. Also, perhaps most significant in terms of a lasting solution, they run an educational program that aims to change the mindset of how unwanted animals are viewed. The hope is that once more informed, people will then go out and become “active agents for change” in their own communities. Admirable objectives!
Curious to know even more, I emailed Cartagena Paws directly and quickly received a response from Maureen herself. She was happy to speak with me, answer questions, and tell the organization’s story. I learned that in addition to all they are working on right now, fundraising is currently underway for the purchase of land in Cartagena where they hope to build an educational-based rescue center.
Finally, I felt a bit hopeful about the plight of Cartagena’s street dogs. I wish Maureen and Cartagena Paws good luck and every success. I plan to help all that I can.
And of course I can’t wait to return to Cartagena, an amazing place on so many levels. Once again I’ll enjoy all that the spectacular city has to offer. And next time, when I see a stray dog standing alone in the street, I’ll know help is coming. Cartagena Paws might stop and pat them on the head, but they will never walk away.
Stuart M. Perkins
In case you’d like to read more about Cartagena Paws and the good work they do, and plan to do, below is the link to their website.