Chaiten Rescue

It’s been over a month since my last conf… um… blog entry. When I left Santiago bound for Chaiten in the south of Chile, my gear was stripped down to essentials and the laptop stayed behind. “South” lasted twice as long as expected and took me through to my last day in Chile. I left without goodbyes to the dogs and people I had come to know in Santiago, and quickly found myself back in Bend, physically and emotionally raw after an intense two-month trip.

chaitenposterMy journey to Chaiten was to document a campaign by CEFU (Coalition for the Ethical Control of Urban Animals) to evacuate dogs and cats abandoned after a volcano erupted there almost a year ago. Residents have been trickling back in, but given the imminent danger of the volcano that forms the backdrop to the village, the Chilean government has decided to relocate Chaiten rather than rebuild it. When 4,500 people were evacuated aboard navy warships, the government denied them their belongings, and their pets.

DSC_1149My 12-hour ferry trip from Puerto Montt to Chaiten lasted 24 hours, but I was happy in all that fresh air after the constricting smog of Santiago. Approaching Chaiten, I was enthralled by the sight of the volcano, having never imagined it would be so visible. If cauliflower can be a verb then the smoke was cauliflowering out of that mountain in humbling proportions. The sight was accompanied by about 20 tremors a day that would pull me out of the deepest sleep to feel my own mortality.

Meeting me at the ferry landing to help with the much-needed supply of dog and cat food was Carolina Ahumada, a journalist who of her own accord as a volunteer for CEFU started this rescue campaign on Facebook. The pets we would capture would ultimately be sent to Santiago for adoption. A momentous task given the shortage of resources and the de-socialization of many of the animals. But Carolina has been described as a humming bird on crack, so the goal for the moment seemed within reach.

DSC_0490A very brief tour of my living quarters set the tone for my stay – a two-bedroom cabin shared with four kittens, five cats, three puppies, one dog, four people, no water and no electricity. Welcome! These were some of the animals suffering from distemper, a highly contagious disease that attacks the gastrointestinal, respiratory and neurological systems. The symptoms include involuntary twitching of muscles, seizures, and deterioration of motor capabilities. There is a vaccination but no specific drug to kill the virus, which spreads through airborne exposure. The prognosis is grave with mortality rates exceeded only by rabies. DSC_1331

But there was no time to comfort the dying, and at a brisk pace I followed the humming bird up and over the hill into Chaiten where the first to greet us were the vultures, hovering, waiting. I tried to ask Carolina if they were always there but she
doesn’t speak English. We soon arrived at the municipal library-turned-veterinary clinic/kennel. Here I met another eight puppies with distemper, 15 without, another five dogs and 3 activists – two veterinarians and their assistant, Daniela Ortiz, Manuel Salas and Liz Espineira. Only Daniela spoke English, which propelled my Spanish lessons into overdrive.
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To get my bearings, I ventured to the other side of the flooded river to where houses had been washed away, cars and boats buried; where a pack of aggressive dogs come out of the foothills at night to scavenge in the remains of the town. I never saw one of them. Their bond to humans has been eroded over the year they’ve had to fend for themselves, killing livestock and wild animals, feeding on trash and by some reports, each other.

Not all dogs were that fearful of humans, cautious yes, but at the same time desperate for food and water – a six inch coating of ash contaminated all ground water supplies. Only one mini-pack seemed to have figured out the lottery, albeit a short-lived prize –
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The “three muskateers,” three same-colored dogs, small, medium and large, that were always together. They were thriving, living on the food handed out by Carolina and Daniela who were the first to arrive almost a month ago. The weather was mild, shelter was available in almost every uninhabited house, they had their friendship and their freedom. The muskateers owned the town. They’d follow us over the hill from cabin to clinic as we wheelbarrowed the generator back and forth. I never got to touch any of them until the very last day when the alpha decided I was okay and crawled up to me on his back, allowing me to touch him. I have yet to find out if they were ever captured, or if they face a brutal and lonely winter in Chaiten. Wherever they are, I pray they’re together.

DSC_0472Without ever knowing what anyone was saying, my only recourse, short of driving Daniela crazy, was to always be ready at moment’s notice. “Vamos?” would quickly turn into “Vamos!” and off we’d go. One morning we woke to one of the kittens deathly ill. In the time it took me to dress, brush my teeth and get my gear ready, our kitten died. It brought home the reality of how full each minute was and the immediacy of the situation. That was reality, as my emotion spoke to me of comforting a dying soul before it’s too late. There was little time to mourn as the same fate befell the puppies.

Symptoms of distemper are diarrhea and vomiting. Regardless of disease, thirty-two animals in confinement create quite an amount of excrement. Arriving back to our cabin of thirteen, the saying was not “home sweet home,” but “caca sweet caca.” When one of the cats took to urinating in my bag on all my clothes, my only option was to stay in the clothes I was wearing. Without running water, standards must drop. I realized no one had thought of a litter box, so I went out in search of a cardboard box. I found one but inside was a dead puppy we had forgotten to bury as we scrambled to care for the living. One grave became two, two became three, as the evacuation was delayed time and time again for lack of funding.

DSC_0655Finally a local TV station, Canal 13, stepped up to the plate and committed to helping CEFU with the campaign. The crew built wooden boxes on the ferry ride over, brought medicine and dog food, catchpoles and nets. Live traps and bait would have been the optimum method, if time were available, but the TV crew only had one night in Chaiten. Suddenly capturing around 80 animals seemed like a pipe dream.

DSC_0932With army and police vehicles, about 30 animals were boxed up and loaded onto the ferry to Puerto Montt, where a veterinary school had given permission to house them in horse stables. My final hours in Chile were spent catching dogs escaping out of the stables, trying to feed, water and walk as many dogs and cats as possible before cutting the cord and taking a 12-hour bus ride back to Santiago to catch my flight back to the US.

I am trying to find out as much as possible about follow-up by CEFU on adoptions, to keep track of where the dogs ultimately go. If I can raise the funds to go back to Chile in three months, I would like to attempt to find the dogs I came to know there, to close out their stories in hopefully happy endings. To know if their rescue is unfinished business.

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1 Response to “Chaiten Rescue”


  1. 1 Margarita May 12, 2009 at 2:27 am

    Welcome Back!The whole situation sounds so horrible
    and hopeless for the majority of the animals there.It
    seems that a virtual army of volunteers,alot of money,and
    a widespread spay and neuter campaign is needed to truly make a difference.Not to mention drugs for euthanasia
    to give relief to the suffering animals.
    I’m sure this experience has been life changing.You are a very strong person to be able to bear witness and do what you can.Hopefully the images you share with the world will make a difference for the animals.


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