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The Land of the Dog

These far ends of glaciers and fjords, that once enchanted Darwin and Chatwin, Theroux and Hudson, have become the setting for postapocalyptic sceneries in which packs of feral dogs not only prey the local fauna and the cattle but also attack people. These dogs’ fangs have contributed, as much as the crisis, to decimate the traditional sheep cattle sector both sides of the international border between Argentina and Chile across Tierra del Fuego, the southernmost land ever colonized by man.

20/07/2017

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Part one | The surroundings of Ranch "Rolito" are so beautiful that it is hard to think that death could be creeping over the place. Annie Luna, granddaughter of the founder of this rural settlement in 1927, is now 70 years old and has silver hair and a soothing gaze. But when she enters the kitchen, garnished with colorful flowers and imbued with the sweet scent of freshly baked Sconnes, she tosses off a comment that leaves us startled: "The sound of guts coming out of a guanaco is dreadful". Magic fades.

On a ramshackle quadracycle, Annie has just returned from her weekly visit to the furthest outpost of the ranch, located about 20 kilometers from the quarter where we are. "The ranch caretaker used to take us round a large and lovely paddock and there were many dead chulengos [the guanaco calf]. And then we saw them: there were about eight dogs. One white Husky, two black coats, another with short black hair and short tail, two dark brown; It was a mixture"She says.

The troupe even seemed friendly; after all, it was just a bunch of dogs in the middle of the field. But Annie says that they immediately threw themselves onto the ground and crept towards them rifle in hand. They never got to fire their guns because the pack probably had smelled them and escaped. "We never had them at shooting range" admits the old lady with pure disappointment. She did not find comfort in being able to save from a certain death a calf that the dogs had already separated from his mother. The fact that she could not kill any of the attackers filled her with distress.

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After a while, we walked with Annie and her daughter, Anita Gonzalez, to the last herd of sheep kept by the old ranch Rolito. From the 8,000 sheep that they used to shear twenty years ago, there are only 300 left. The grass looks very green under a mountain of imposing lengas, as they call the native oaks of Tierra del Fuego. The two women remember that in this place, one of the worst slaughters took place: one night, the wild dogs blocked a whole herd against a massive log fence. The next day they found more than 40 bloody corpses, though many more victims where discovered as the days went by. Many sheep got wound infections and became ill. Others simply sprouted their guts through the white wool, where the dogs have sunk their fangs. Then again, the guts. The sound of death. 

It finds its origin in the neglect of the inhabitants of the few cities on the island: the Argentine Ushuaia

Isla Grande de Tierra del Fuego is the southernmost region of the world ever colonized by men, considering that only a few military and scientific campsites are settled in the ice of the Antarctic. A straight line that runs from north to south divides the Argentine side of the island, about 8 thousand square miles, from the Chilean side, which has a barely larger surface area. The famous Strait of Magellan separates the island from the mainland. On the south bank, the Beagle Channel receives large cargo ships that navigate from Pacific ocean to Atlantic ocean and vice versa. In the middle, sheep farming has been the most long-standing economic activity since 1896, when a Spaniard named José Menéndez founded the first of a series of huge ranches. And thus, the first sheepdogs arrived. They were partners and friends to men.

It's summer, shearing season. Time to take advantage of the sun-hours to do the activities that the harsh winter will later hinder. The wind here does not abide by the seasons and it always blows heavily, although these days it has become quiet, allowing us to hear the low tones of each testimony. We were told about the existence of wild dogs left without an owner because they have been born and bred in a rural setting for several generations since the first mention was made of them in the 1980's. It finds its origin in the neglect of the inhabitants of the few cities on the island: the Argentine Ushuaia, Rio Grande - as we will see in the second part of this report - Tolhuin, and the Chilean Porvenir. Many of these people allow their dogs to roam freely through the streets and out into the fields, or simply leave them there when they must travel or go on vacation. 

Sebastian Cabeza bid us welcome at the Guazú Cué settlement, which we reach after an hour on a muddy dirt road. He resembles an Indiana Jones from the third world. Like the character, he wears leather boots, khaki pants and even a wide-brimmed hat. But above all, he exudes that pride inherent to those who do not surrender in times of extreme hardship: in the talk he tells us several times that he'll only leave this place the day he dies". Cabeza and his family are squeezed into a couple of rooms of a small service dwelling because a voracious fire consumed the old wooden house that was the heart of his ranch a few months ago. He says it pains him to have lost many of his memories there, but that is not his main problem. "The dog is a terminal illness for sheep farming. At least we have weapons to defend ourselves ".

It finds its origin in the neglect of the inhabitants of the few cities on the island: the Argentine Ushuaia

Cabeza has studied his enemy in depth and even compares it with the fierce Dingo, a wolf subspecies found in the Australian plains. There are no wolves here in the extreme south of America, only dogs that this cattleman calls "a dumb wolf", because they kill the sheep not because they eat them, but to fulfill the commands imposed by the human domestication for thousands of years. It is a fact that he despises them and tried to stop them with everything he could: he set up almost 16 kilometers of electric fence wire and placed toothed traps for foxes. On a bunk located in the room he shares with his children, lies an enormous rifle with telescopic sight, but Cabeza states that it is also not efficient. Dogs instead have been successful with their attacks. About 75% of the sheep in Guazú Cué have disappeared and had to be replaced by cattle, which are quite voluminous and that puts them safe from attacks, but are not so resistant to the severe cold of the island. His last-ditch effort was to incorporate a breed of dog from Chile to guard the few remaining sheep. Breed dogs to face the other dogs. We approach 500 meters from a herd and we can already hear the barking of those huge guards that stand between us and the sheep. 

Lucila Apolinaire, 45, is the president of the Rural Association of Tierra del Fuego. She remembered one winter morning when she was a teenager returning from one of her first balls when she stumbled with endless bloodstains on the white snow that surrounded the ranch where her father used to be land steward, as they call the person responsible for taking care of the establishment. It was the first attacks but nobody took actions to stop them in time. The data of the sheep downfall on the Argentine side are now terrifying. According to the official numbers, in the last decade the population of sheep was reduced from 700 thousand to only 280 thousand animals, while at the same time the rural territories were depopulated. The union of rural workers confirms that the amount of personnel employed in this sector fell from about 800 people to only 254. None of them has suffered an attack yet, but Lucila believes it is only a matter of time. "When that day comes, maybe someone will pay attention to our complaints," she says ironically.

Not all the sheep that are missing today have fallen into the jaws of dogs. The problem here is that this long-standing productive activity became impossible due to the high rate of mortality and therefore many producers began to lose their spirit and reduce their rodeos. Between May 2006 and February 2008, when the dog issue became very noticeable, a group of institutions coordinated by the Veterinary College of the region consulted the breeders and have drawn the conclusion that the presence of this type of packs was detected in 74% of the fields. In that period, losses were also accaunted for "32,725 sheep heads, 77,566 kilograms of wool, 32 calves and 2 steers ". Despite the obvious damage, no one in the government wagged a finger. Ushuaia lives from tourism and public administration, Rio Grande from the assembly industry and in Tolhuin have flourished the wood sawmills. What happens in the countryside matters little to the rest of the inhabitants of the island.

***

Sebastian Cabeza's ranch is located equidistantly about 40 kilometers between Rio Grande and Tolhuin, two of the three cities that cast out dogs to the rural areas. Ushuaia is about 100 kilometers to the south, facing the Beagle Channel. That's where the Southern Scientific Research Center operates. It depends on the Conicet, the Technological and Scientific Organization of the Argentine State. Adrián Schiavini, a wildlife biologist, was the one who helped the owner of Guazú Cué install the only traps that did work: ten cameras arranged along 600 meters of fence, which in a few days allowed to identify 43 different dogs lurking in groups in the area. The scientist shows us the images but makes clear that we will see nothing more than a group of common dogs sniffing behind a fence. Indeed, they look like ordinary dogs, rather large, somewhat funny and reckless. They turn out to be a mixture of breeds and textures, like those Annie says she saw in her ranch. They are the wild dogs at world's end.

"That domestic animal is involving to its wild state due to our own carelessness"

Schiavini sips a bitter mate while he tells us that the correct name to refer to them is "feral dogs". He then explains that for thousands of years mankind has been working to turn a wild animal into a domestic one, going from wolf or coyote to simple dog. And that what happens now is a kind of involution. "Thatdomestic animal is involving to its wild state due to our own carelessness. It is not, however, a new species but an animal that has degenerated its behavior because we have thrown it into a natural environment without any human supervision", says the specialist. In such a slow return, these dogs become a sort of "ordinary predators": they are in the wild and must hunt in order to survive, but do not know how to do it because the man removed that chip from them. So they roam, something they -do- know how to do: they interact with each other and put together small clans, and play, which is what we have taught them to do for centuries.

"The demeanour of these animals is to attack everything that moves, to chase them instinctively. Just like the dogs chase the cars in the cities, these feral dogs see a sheep and run towards it because it moves. That makes for some fun and entertainment in the group and is what causes massive damage to sheep ", explains Schiavini. Cabeza, the farmer, coined another term to define the attacks of these dogs: "I compare it to an act of vandalism", He says.

The Conicet biologist estimates that currently, there is a population of 600 to 1,000 of these feral dogs in Tierra del Fuego, which were born and raised in a wild environment. They live in burrows and are arranged into small packs. They have lost all ties with men, their domesticators. And if they come accross with a man, this one tries to kill them to avenge the sheep slaughter. Those who are born in the wild occasionally accept the stray dogs that leave the cities and, for one reason or another, never return to their homes.

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The presence of the wild dogs mainly concentrates in a part of the island called Ecotono. The landscape is hauntingly beautiful, though no one in their right mind would decide to stay there alone for the night. This fuegian atmosphere arises from the transition between the extensive patagonian steppe and the imposing snowy peaks that form the beginning of the Andean Mountains. It is a foothill of rather low trees full of greyish lichens and twisted branches similar to those described by Jack London in his mythical work White Fang. The plot in the book takes place in Yukon, Alaska, and in the story a wild wolf could be gradually tamed by men. Here, at the other end of the world, the opposite happens: it is domestic dogs that become wild. They build their burrows in this Ecotono. Within this forest it is almost impossible to chase them and hunt them down.

The most massive attacks occur in spring or summer, when dog packs tend to be more active and the big packs move towards the ranches. When everything is covered with snow and goes into lethargy, dogs only survive by feeding on what they find in the forest.

"The dog is a very basic animal that can feed on a wide variety of things, from fruit to farm animals, eggs or bird chicks. That is why their ability to alter the biological system is very strong"

There is a population of about 30,000 guanacos on the island, they are a variety of American camelids. They also die by the tens when they cross feral dogs. In a playful state, these dogs kill much more than they need to feed: almost all their prey is scattered, a table served for chimangos and other birds of prey. "The dog is a very basic animal that can feed on a wide variety of things, from fruit to farm animals, eggs or bird chicks. That is why their ability to alter the biological system is very strong", Warns the biologist Schiavini, who also claims that the disturbances in the populations of ducks, sheldgoose, buff-necked ibis, red foxes and other sylvan animals are caused by this invasive species. Wild dogs always end up killing other species. Sometimes because they are hungry, but mainly because they want to play biting.

Several producers told us that even the penguins, the most characteristic birds in the Patagonian region, had been victims of this type of packs. For many decades, there was a huge reserve of penguins called Seno Otway located near to Punta Arenas, crossing the Strait of Magellan to the territory of Chile. "Cerrado, closed," read a sign on the side of an iron door that blocked access to the place. A local told us that there was nothing to see because the penguins migrated, looking for a quiet place. Another similar case took place in the Argentine province of Santa Cruz, neighboring to the island. In November 2016, 370 dead penguins were spotted in the Provincial Reserve Ría Deseado and the rangers immediately accused the dogs. 

***

Nothing but bureaucratic and expensive customs offices stand between Argentina and Chile within the island. Gendarmes on one side, Carabineers on the other, they all frown on their search for shoes or household appliances smuggling that justifies their job. In order to enter with a domestic dog, a number of procedures must be carried out before health authorities, which are not always that simple. Wild dogs, on the other hand, run freely from one side of the border to the other. When we left Argentine territory, and entered Chile we had some discontent, because all of our sources had mentioned the feral animals, but in the end we never got to see any of them. Suddenly, on a desolated dirt road, two dogs approached us, one with yellowish fur and the other completely black. We stopped and they did likewise; We looked at each other to know who was on the other side. After a couple of seconds, the one who appeared to be the leader began to run across the field and the other followed in his footsteps. There was no sign of men in several tens of kilometers around.

In recent months, Chilean producers have begun to report sporadic attacks of dogs to their herds. They call these groups of sheep "piños". And the stray dogs are called "roaming dogs."

In the ranch Florida, we are welcomed in a steaming kitchen, garnished with flowers, as it is accustomed during summer, and a raspberry pie. René Milicevic is a descendant of the Croatian families who landed in southern Chile in the early 20th century in search of gold and then had no choice but to devote their lives to sheep farming instead. His house is opposite to Bahía Inútil, closer to Argentina than to the city of Porvenir, the only population center in the chilean part of Tierra del Fuego. "Dogs move very fast and cover a huge range of distance. They're here now, but tomorrow they could be about 50 kilometers down south. They are very difficult to control precisely because of this ", Explains the farmer, who already has in the east area of his field a pack of several dogs that -he believes- entered from the neighboring country.

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"They used to attack near Porvenir only, but now the problem is that all the dogs from the Argentine side are coming to us", affirms Rodrigo Filipic, another grandson of Croatians who presides over the Chilean Cattlemen Association of Tierra del Fuego. He keeps several images and videos that he recorded with his cellphone after an attack on his sheep. "We were moving the animals from the winter fields to the summer ones and kept them in a stable. A large dog came in, frontally attacking many sheep, and splitted their jaws in two halves with one single bite. We lost 60 sheep in a few hours" he tells us. Filipic is particularly moved by the images of a sheep that survived the attack, but could barely breathe.

The dog that caused such damage was nowhere to be found, although he had a suspect: his neighbors had seen an imposing Argentine Mastiff lurking in the area those days. This is the only canine breed native to that country, created by Dr. Antonio Nores Martínez in the 1920s. They are huge animals with iron jaws that were "programmed" to hunt large prey such as pumas, deer and wild boars. It is still a mystery how that dog came to Isla Grande and we will not know why it was at large and roaming around the countryside. We do know that a sheep has small chance of survival if it comes accross a dog wandering the southernmost territories of this world.

* The second part of this report will be published next Tuesday, July 25 



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