This aired on Monocle 24’s “The Urbanist” on March 8, 2012. Download the show here. This piece starts at 2:15.
Curacaví is a small town just outside Chile’s capital city, Santiago. You start in the city, on the subway. You ride west, past housing blocks, into the lower-density suburbs. You get on a local bus into the countryside, and a half hour later, you’re here, in Curacaví, with horse-drawn wagons and adobe block homes.
The town is known for its apricots, a sweet wine called chicha, and sugary pastries that locals sell along the highway to the coast. But the town has also gained fame in recent years for its mayor. In particular, how its mayor is obsessed — with dogs.
MALE VOICEOVER: My name is Guillermo Barros Echenique. I was born in 1934. I am getting on in years. I have always lived with dogs. I have always taken care of dogs. In primary school, I walked in the hills with 8, 10 dogs, and we’d go everywhere, happy. I’ve always been with the dogs. When I got a perfect grade in school, instead of hugging my mother, I hugged my dog.
The mayor’s love really knows no bounds. I ask him if he has a dog of his own and he says he has a dog named Polilla who sleeps at the end of his bed every night. But it’s actually the second Polilla.
TENGO PERRO EMBALSAMADO, QUIERE VER UN PERRO EMBALSAMADO? REGALONA…
He is asking if I want to see an embalmed dog.
Y COMO SE LLAMA?
He goes over to his office closet and he pulls out a taxidermied dog. This is the first Polilla. It’s got white curly hair. It’s laying down with its head up, as if waiting to be pet.
This strikes me as very, very strange. But if the mayor only had a live dog on his bed, and a dead dog in his closet, there wouldn’t be any problem.
To explain here, Curacaví doesn’t have a traditional city hall. Instead, it has the “municipal house.” It is what it sounds like: a large house on the high street. It has a few acres of manicured parkland out back for public enjoyment.
But the main public you find is dogs.
There are dogs all over the place. Big ones, little ones, short hair, long hair. Mostly mutts. The mayor says pure-breeds are “half-wits.”
“Yo soy la que, hago aseo aquí en el parque, riego aquí en todo el parque, y les doy comida a los perros en las mañanas y las tardes. Y les doy aguita y todo. Es la mantención que hago acá. Me preocupo por los animales.”
FEMALE VOICEOVER: I’m the park janitor, I water the park, and I give food to the dogs in the mornings and evenings. That’s the maintenance I do here — I look out for the animals.
That’s Veronica Catalán. She works seven days a week, feeding and watering the dogs. She says about 80 dogs live here now. That’s 80, eight-zero, all running free. Some were strays, while others were abandoned here by their owners.
FEMALE VOICEOVER: In the past, it wasn’t like this. before this mayor, there weren’t so many dogs here. not everyone has the same heart that my boss has.
The city gives them shots against parasites and spays the females. Veronica Catalan and the mayor insist that the dogs here are tranquil and bother no one.
But the neighbors are less convinced. I talked to Jose Alarcon, who was at the town hall to register his daughter for elementary school. As he waited by the back door, dogs walked in and out of the building in front of him.
MALE VOICEOVER: I like dogs. I have 4 dogs in my house. But from four dogs to what they have here? That’s a big difference. Too many dogs.
Sitting just up the lawn, I found this young couple having a picnic with their 1-year-old daughter. Eric Barra said in his house, they have two dogs, a cat, and a horse, and they are all good with kids. But Anahí Hermosilla said stray dogs — such as those fed and protected by the mayor — are another story.
FEMALE VOICEOVER: i live across the street, and in my alley there are 4 stray dogs. At times, if they don’t know you, they’ll jump all over you. I think they should have them closed up in a pen. If it’s open to the public, it’s not appropriate that the dogs are loose. And there’s grass, then it should be OK for kids to come. So it’s not the best that the dogs are loose.
The situation certainly raises questions. The mayor may be trying to protect the dogs’ health, but some have visible skin conditions, and it strikes me as odd that the city spends the money to spay females but doesn’t neuter the males.
In any case, there’s one part of the mayor’s dog obsession that everyone agrees is a good thing. The city has started a program of canine therapy, in which therapists use dogs to help people with various kinds of disabilities, from blindness to depression. They don’t use the stray dogs. Instead they use purebred labs, donated by a local breeder.
Paola Serrano is in charge of the program. She recounts the story of how the city gave a puppy to a young woman. The woman had grown up with physical disabilities, and as a young teen, her classmates were becoming cruel. She got depressed. She even tried to kill herself. After that, therapists gave her one of the dogs. The goal was to give the girl motivation and responsibilities, but it had a bigger effect.
“Al mismo tiempo que ella empezó a bañar a la perrita, ella también vio que ella podía empezar a bañarse sola, también, por ejemplo. También empezó a exigir su espacio, como joven. Ahora no era una niña pequeña, empezó a allí se notar cambios, y con la psicologa, que sé yo, ahora la niña esta en un colegio, está pololeando, está viviendo una vida absolutamente normal a traves del trabajo que se hecho con el perro.”
FEMALE VOICEOVER: When she started to bathe the dog, she saw that she could also start to bathe herself, alone. She also started to demand her personal space, as a young woman — she’s not a little girl anymore. From there you start to see changes, and with the psychologist, and who knows what, now the girl is in school, is dating, is living a totally normal life thanks to the work that was done with the dog.
So long as they have stories like that, there’s no doubt that mayor Barros Echenique will keep taking care of dogs, no matter what the neighbors say.
In Curacaví, Chile, this is Steven Bodzin, for Monocle 24.