A new sound has invaded my time in Isla Negra.  In this small coastal town, site of one of Pablo Neruda’s homes and where my grandparents have lived for the last 18 years, many people keep dogs as pets, but also as an alarm system.

As in Santiago, but appropriate to its scale, Isla Negra has its population of street dogs: those that roam the roads, paved and dirt alike, in search of a friend or more likely a bite to eat.  Nothing to fear, of course, these fellows are generally more docile than any dog you’ll find behind a fence.

domestic dogs versus street dogs
Domestic dogs / Street dogs

During the day, but most notably at night, the calming song of the ocean is interrupted by the canine alarm system, usually roused by one or more of their drifter counterparts passing in the lane.  Our neighbour here has a multi-level system, ranging from threatening to chihuahian in size and pitch.  And of course, all are activated at once, to maximum effect.

a pekingese dog
High pitch feature of canine alarm system

Luckily, the alert doesn’t last very long and most people are not stirred, which is more than I can say for the unfortunate Chilenos and Chilenas of the country’s coastal regions who fled low-lying areas after Chile’s second tsunami warning in as many weeks, on March 11th.

But beyond my half-serious complaints lies the issue of Chile’s dog population: the city of Santiago alone counts approximately 250,000 street dogs, according to a 2002 survey completed by the University of Chile.  The survey also corresponds with the beginning of the government’s attempt to deal with the issue through the Tenencia Responsable de Mascotas (Responsible Pet Ownership) project.  This, however, has moved at a snail’s limp toward becoming legislation and 8 years later now sits with the national congress.  Chile’s Ministry of Health has stated that dealing with street dogs is among its priorities for the next decade.

Aside from the cost of capturing and euthanising problematic street dogs (though animal rights groups claim that cheap, painful methods are employed), concerns arise from the potential spread of infectious diseases by dogs acting as carriers.  Also, in cases of disaster like the recent quake, regional emergency authorities have been accused of turning immediately to the destruction of animals that have been abandoned.  The question is, with reconstruction and getting people back to work and students back to school the clear priorities, will anyone sound the canine alarm?

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