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Men will have to bite back.

In order to control the new four-legged threat, even hunting parties in helicopter have had to be organized. But these dog packs, which have already made the countryside their territory, now besiege the southernmost urban centers of Argentina, from where they initially escaped in most cases. While there are already reports of attacks against people in the city of Ushuaia, several ideas to face the problem have been proposed.

25/07/2017 15:22:21

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Part two | In the most populated city of the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego, Río Grande, we counted at least four stray dogs only in the block where the dog pound is located. Among barks, they are the ones who escort us to the entrance of the place, but remain outside just in case: inside they'd be castrated and get a chip implanted. While we wait to interview the chief of veterinarians of the municipal government, two men who attend a few tight cages used to lock up the dogs who have bitten people, recognize that their work is clearly insufficient: while they castrate a hundred dogs, another thousand are born outside.

Luis Ruiz, the veterinarian in charge, receives us after a surgical intervention to a small poodle that will not be able to breed anymore. The little dog is still numb by the anesthesia while the official takes off the protective mask as he admits that they are "swamped" and that the appearance of wild dogs at the end of the world will have no solution unless some behaviors are changed. "We have to work a lot more with the dogs -says Ruiz-. But there's even more work to be done with the human being". Only a small fraction of the dogs that swarm through the streets of the city and sometimes migrate to the countryside, are taken to the dog pound. Those who do not return to their homes and settle in the forests are the "feral" ones. The lack of adequate controls and care in the city ultimately impacts the entire environment.

The root of the problem was already raised in the first part of this research by Armando.Info: in the southernmost inhabited territory of this planet, Isla Grande of Tierra del Fuego, shared between Argentina and Chile, there is a population between 600 and 1,000 wild dogs that have lost contact with the people who once domesticated and taught them good manners, after returning to a wild environment. Without the guiding hand of the humans, these dogs are born and reproduce in the rural area, where they cause unmeasurable damages. A pack of these dogs, in just a single spree, is capable of slaughter up to a hundred sheep, which they bite and bleed to death almost for sport. Also, the local fauna, conformed by penguins, foxes, guanacos and very diverse birds, is constantly in danger.

Most recently, on June 29th, the Telam news agency reported an attack to a woman by a pack between fifteen to twenty dogs, in Ushuaia, the southernmost city of Tierra del Fuego, Argentina and the world, in Beagle channel’s shore. The victim, Consuelo Ávalos, didn’t died thanks to the opportune intervention of some neighbors who managed to scare the dogs, members of an already well-known pack that has been attacking a zone from the Falkland Islands airport to the Misión Alta and Misión Baja neighborhoods near the coast. Nevertheless, Ávalos sustained more than 30 injuries all over her body, some of which severe, even in her scalp. 

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines as reasonable a ratio of 1 to 10, five times lower than that recorded on this island

"We have to work a lot with the human being," Ruiz repeats. Like everyone around, the doctor knows the source of the problem but not the solution. Approximately 70,000 people live in Río Grande and the canine population reaches 36,000. It means that on average there is more than one domestic dog for every two inhabitants. There are two other cities on the Argentinian side of the island, Ushuaia and Tolhuin, which confirm the statistics: in total, there are 120 thousand humans against a canine population estimated at 55 thousand. One Bobby for each John and Mary. The World Health Organization (WHO) defines as reasonable a ratio of 1 to 10, five times lower than that recorded on this island.

Not only are there many dogs, but also, they roam quite unattended. Lucila Apolinaire, president of the Rural Association of Tierra del Fuego, proposes us to make "the pickup test". We left the headquarters of the organization, a sumptuous English-style house almost a century old that was once surrounded by nature, but now is in the middle of precarious slums where new workers who come to Río Grande establish themselves to be part of an industrial sector that just "assembles" electronics with components imported from China. The test consists in tying a dog in the cargo space of the pickup and go around the streets of the city. As we follow it, we can see a high number of dogs running at large, outside their houses, going out as the intruder approaches, barking and showing their teeth. We count them four or five of them per block. They look furious.

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The Municipality of Río Grande once conducted a survey on sixth graders. They have told that in at least 30% of their homes, it is usual for the dog to be allowed to go out into the street once a day. "We are talking about approximately 10,000 dogs", calculates Luis Ruiz. In 2016, he and his team performed 2,900 castrations, but females go on heat at least twice a year. Basic Mathematics: there are many more dogs born than those that get sterilized.

The dog is the "best friend" of those who vote and that weighs heavily in the ballot boxes

"The problem of these dogs in Argentina has no remedy", claims glumly Fabian Zanini, directive of the Veterinarian Association of Tierra del Fuego, and who has made the most efforts to raise awareness of this problem. His line of reasoning is that politicians do not want to hear anything about the dogs, because they know that any stance they take would harm their image towards their electors. The dog is the "best friend" of those who vote and that weighs heavily in the ballot boxes. Zanini cited a similar case to that of Río Grande. In another Patagonian city with a very rapid population growth rate, Neuquén, located in the middle of the oil region, it was discussed in 2010 how to deal with the high population of street dogs and as a result, an ordinance was issued in which the city is declared as "non-euthanasic" due to the pressure exerted by groups of animal rights advocates. It is the first commandment: "Thou shalt not kill dogs."

There are a couple of differences with that case. The first and fundamental is that Tierra del Fuego is after all an island that can only be reached by ferry or plane; wild dogs cannot migrate to other parts. The second distinction is that the stray dogs from Río Grande or Tolhuin just have to walk a few blocks to go out into the open and come upon the sheep. In Ushuaia, there is almost no sheep farming nowadays, but there are large reserves of flora and fauna that also feel the pressure of these dogs. Many ecosystems are endangered and yet no one is taking measures about it. A couple of years ago, Michael Marlow, an expert on wildlife in the United States, visited the area and proposed several ways to deal with the feral dogs. Among them, he proposed hunting the dogs from the air in the rural areas, firing at them with a machine gun from a helicopter.

"This is a very complex problem, because it affects several systems such as production, public health and the environment"

"This is a very complex problem, because it affects several systems such as production, public health and the environment. It is also very complex because the problem is generated inside the cities but fundamentally affects the ecosystems outside the urban common lands, where the provincial government cannot take decisions". This is what Mauro Pérez Toscani tells us, who is the Secretary of Environment, Sustainable Development and Climate Change of the Tierra de Fuego Province. Forced by the circumstances, in its last debate of 2016, the provincial Legislature issued an unprecedented law in Argentina that defines for the first time the feral dogs like an "exotic species" and orders the provincial government to implement a specific program to stop them. Before granting us an interview, Pérez Toscani suggested that we avoid the so feared question: will it be possible to advance without the need to exterminate the dogs? The law has not yet been regulated but the official already wants to save himself the bitter pill of having to anticipate that, inevitably, one of the actions will be to hunt the feral.

Adrian Schiavini, expert in wildlife of the Conicet, the scientific body of the Argentinian State, has no doubts, although he speaks of two very different situations: "The long-term solution involves the people adopting a responsible tenure, because that is the way to prevent more dogs to be released from the cities into the rural areas. It is difficult because in the people's culture it is deep-rooted that the dog has to be free and roam around in the streets. Afterwards there is what happens with the feral dogs. In this case we are facing an invasive exotic species, such as the beaver, the mink or the gray fox. Then you have to extract it with the most humanitarian method possible. And that depends on what is socially acceptable because we would be messing with man's best friend".

***

The hunting of the so-called wild dogs is permitted on the Argentinian side of Tierra del Fuego by provisions that already declared them as an invasive species. All the producers have a rifle ready for the occasion when they see a pack approaching, but also everyone recognizes that this method is quite inefficient, because the wild dogs hide in the forests and only a few are killed each year. The ranch José Menéndez, the oldest and one of the largest on the island, is located in the Patagonian steppe and everything there is much simpler. They have hired a professional hunter who traverses the plain on a quad and collects between 40 and 50 dollars for each dead dog tail that takes to the owners. The hunter remains anonymous. He confesses that some of his prey wear a collar and the tag that identifies them as pets with owner. They are clearly street dogs that have left the city as they have been neglected by their owners. 

"The dog that attacks us is not the dog in the fields but the dog that leaves the village"

Roberto Fernandez Speroni runs another of the most traditional sheep ranches and, according to him, the one with the largest shearing shed in the world. It is called Maria Bethy and neighbors directly with the southern border of Río Grande. It is so close to the city that it even ceded the necessary land to the local airport. "The dog that attacks us is not the dog in the fields but the dog that leaves the village. I have seen attacks of between 80 and 120 dead sheep, but these dogs are not hungry nor eat anything, at dawn they return home to live with their masters", reports the producer, confirming that dogs do not need to become wild to commit acts of savagery. In the worst times in Maria Bethy they lost around 4,000 sheep each year, until they had no other choice but to isolate their countryside from the city by the installation of five kilometers of interwoven wire, the kind of wiring used for pig farming. The dogs can only pass the wiring through a way which has armed guards at the end, who shoot them dead on sight. Enclosure is an effective but very expensive method. Now the cattlemen expect a contribution from the provincial government to install another 13 kilometers of wiring on the south border of the city.

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"There is no control over wild dogs. If a disease moves from the city to the countryside, that dog will not be sanitarily controlled. And this is very dangerous", warns from the Animal Health laboratory the young veterinarian Vilma Disalvo. Monitoring in the zone is very precarious but measurements have been made on several zoonoses, animal diseases that can be transmitted to humans. No cases of rabies have yet been found, but in 2016, 450 samples from stray dogs feces were analyzed for canine brucellosis (a widespread bacterial disease in the world that causes reproductive failures and abortions) and it delivered 12% of positive results. Another very dangerous disease is hydatidosis: it is caused by a parasite that can reach the man through the fecal matter of dogs, causing the formation of cysts in the liver and kidneys; it currently has, according to the studies of Disalvo, a prevalence of 6% when it was believed to be eradicated from the region.

With streets full of dogs, in 2016 there were also 598 reports of people who suffered bites, which is equivalent to almost two complaints per day. This represents another indicator of the lack of control that is experienced on the Argentinian side of the island.

***

In Chile, without major cities on their island's side to manage, the main focus of conflict over canine controls is located in Punta Arenas, the capital city of the Magallanes Region. We already told it: here the stray dogs are called "slackers".

"Slacker dogs do not exist. But there are slack men who do not provide them with the proper food"

"Slacker dogs do not exist. But there are slack men who do not provide them with the proper food. That's why dogs have to go to work to survive. Sheep, on the other hand, are not part of the regional fauna, because they are animals brought here by the English", tells us Barquillito the Clown by text message in a wryly way, when we contact him to request an interview that never took place. Barquillito is one of the most active environmentalists in the south of Chile and some people have asserted that he was the one who threw a Molotov bomb against the regional headquarters of the Agricultural and Livestock Service (SAG) of Punta Arenas. It was at the beginning of 2014, when the critics of the country's animal protectors raged against a decree signed by former President Sebastián Piñera to amend the Hunting Law and include a paragraph authorizing to shoot "wild or feral dogs found in packs" at a distance of more than 400 meters from rural towns. The pressure worked and within a few months, with the change of government, the new president Michelle Bachelet reversed the reform.

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In any case, the Government of the Magallanes Region, which has jurisdiction over the Chilean side of Tierra del Fuego, has just launched a plan to control the "slacker dogs" that at first sight seems much more effective and rigorous than those that are implemented in Argentina. In fact, there was not much left a choice after the Supreme Court of Chile gave that order in May of 2015. It was after a citizen accused the local authorities of being responsible for a stray dog having bitten his daughter. Justice validated his complaint in all instances and that made political decisions to precipitate.

"If you had come a few years ago the situation was very different, but there has been a breakthrough. This strategy with the fines works"

In the brand-new dog pound of Punta Arenas, the wiring mesh of zinc still retains the brightness of new things. We are not received by loose dogs there, but inside there are many of them that form a swarm of barking around the small figure of Raúl Angulo, the person in charge of the place and feeding them. The man opens the lock very willingly and more than eager to show us his task. The dog pound takes away all the stray dogs that roam the city, and they have a chip implanted to identify them, they are castrated and vaccinated. Then they are taken back to the exact place where they were found. The strategy is not very different from that of the cities on the Argentinian side, except for one detail: when the owner is discovered, he is charged very severe fines for neglecting his animals. "If you had come a few years ago the situation was very different, but there has been a breakthrough. This strategy with the fines works", says Angulo.

Anyway, this policy is a remedy only for the city; while in the field, Chilean producers are still orphans of a strategy. Rodrigo Filipic, president of the Cattlemen Association of Tierra del Fuego, believes that the biggest problem is still the feral dogs that come from Argentina and he thinks that it will be necessary to formulate measures between both countries. "Here the sheep stock still keeps up and, although we have a considerable annual drop by mortality caused by dogs, we are still in time to do something to prevent reaching a situation as critical as the one they have on the Argentinian side", he affirms.

Towards the end of the 1970s, Argentina and Chile almost went to war because of bordering problems on the Beagle Channel. The controversy could be settled only in 1984, with the signing of a treaty promoted by Pope John Paul II, but there are still many misgivings between both nations and very few joint projects. It still seems a utopia for governments to define a common strategy for the control of feral dogs.

"Danger - Minefield", read some posters that we are leaving behind as we depart from that region. Evidently, they warn that there have remained explosives underground since that conflict. On the surface, in the southernmost fields of the planet, the scourge of the wild dogs is also taking dangerous tones.



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