I’ve always been a dog person. My family in the States sends me more pictures of our dog, Junebug, than the humans in the family. I’ve always been around dogs that were loved unconditionally, like a sibling or a child. This is why the most intense culture shock I experienced upon arrival in Peru was witnessing the ubiquitous malnourished street dogs.
They’re everywhere. With exposed ribcages and various skin diseases, they wander the streets and weave in and out of traffic. They spend the day alternating between sleeping on the sidewalk and scavenging trash heaps in pursuit of food. Street dogs have become in my mind a piece of the landscape of Peru. From the cities to the pueblitos to the roads that connect them, street dogs are there, suffering and surviving.
I’d been sitting in the office all day. Desperately needing to stretch my legs I decided to go on an extended walk. Listening to a podcast, admiring Moyobamba’s early evening sky, I was perfectly content. After only fifteen minutes, a perrito began trailing me. He sidled up to me on my left and walked alongside. I turned a corner, he turned a corner, I crossed a street, he crossed a street, I stopped, he stopped. This was unprecedented; in my experience, you ignore street dogs and they ignore you in return. I did nothing to encourage him except occasionally look down at him, but eye contact was all the encouragement this perrito needed. With an exposed ribcage, a waspish waist my hands could wrap around, and a persistent twitch of his right paw, he remained stubbornly by my side for over an hour.
Our walk was not without incident. Twice he meandered directly in front of me, causing me to stop suddenly and lose my balance. As I struggled to regain composure, the perrito saw my flailing arms and misinterpreted my clumsiness as aggression. He froze, tail between his legs, and crouched in terror. He was clearly expecting a kick. When none came, he rushed back to my left side and we resumed our stroll.
Someone else tried to kick him, though. I saw a parent narrowly miss the perrito with his foot in an attempt to keep the dog away from his child. Later, a street vendor threw water on him when he wandered too close to her food. He’d been a few feet behind me, so he dodged the water and quickly took his place once again by my side.
We’d been walking for nearly an hour. Finally, about two blocks from my house, something across the street distracted him. As he ran to investigate, I marched onward. I cast a furtive glance behind me, and perrito was gone. Assuming he’d lost interest in me, I sat down in the main plaza about a block away from my home to write for a while. Sure enough, minutes later, perrito had tracked me down and ran towards me. He plopped down next to my bench and raised his head, gazing at me expectantly.
What could I do? How could I help? I couldn’t give him shelter. I couldn’t feed him for more than an evening. Not seeing any other choice, I’d resolved to leave him. To go home a block away, and if he followed me, to close the door behind him. We sat together for ten minutes as I tried to work up the conviction to follow through with my plan. An older Peruvian couple approached us.
“Is this your dog?” they asked.
“No, he’s been following me all afternoon,” I answered in faltering Spanish.
“He’s sick! He’s so, so skinny. And his right arm is twitching. Why don’t you take him to the vet?”
“There’s a veterinarian here? Where?”
They attempted to describe the location, but I was unable to repeat the directions back to them. It was clear I wouldn’t be able to find the office on my own, so they offered to accompany me there. The perrito followed me, following them. They told me about their rescued pit bulls, their new puppies, their love for their pit bull family, and how pit bulls remain unfairly stigmatized.
The three of us, perrito by my side, stood in line. I told them I’m a volunteer, I’ll be in Moyobamba until July, I’m living with a host family, I can’t take this dog home. We could ask the veterinarian to treat perrito for tonight, but I couldn’t provide any kind of long term care.
Normally I dislike people blatantly listening in on conversations, but amazingly, the woman standing in front of us in line turned around and said, “I know someone who takes in dogs from the street! I’ll give him a call and see if he can take your dog.”
And just like that, every piece was falling into place. This caring, dog-loving couple happened to be walking past right as I was considering leaving the perrito, they were kind enough to offer to walk me to the veterinarian, this woman (Deisy) happened to be in front of us in line, listening to our conversation, and knew someone who could provide long-term shelter. It was like the universe was conspiring to save this perrito.
Our turn to see the veterinarian finally arrived. The perrito was terrified to enter, so I carried him. The couple accompanied me inside as I plopped him down on the metal table. The vet looked him over and launched into rapid-fire, medical jargon that I definitely never learned in any Spanish class. I was totally lost. I looked back at the man and woman, who nodded at me reassuringly. Finally they translated the most important piece; the perrito needed medicine and it would cost 12 soles. Okay, not a problem. But I’d have to go to the pharmacy and bring it back, and the vet’s office was closing in 10 minutes. I didn’t know where the pharmacy was. The man offered to run there and pick up the prescription while I waited with his wife and the perrito.
He closed his doors minutes before the man returned with the prescription. The vet, who was about to hop on his moto and drive away, saw us and agreed to open his doors back up just for me and perrito. The vet gave him his shot (while I was holding perrito in a death grip) and gave me enough dog food to last the night.
Again, the pieces were falling into place and the universe was conspiring to make sure this dog would be safe, healthy, and loved. An entire community of strangers was rallying around perrito, whom I decided to name Campeón (Champion in Spanish. Not only the name of a three-legged rescue dog on my favorite television show, but also an appropriate name for any dog who has experienced the trauma and abuse that he’s survived).
Deisy came back with the news. Her friend could take the dog, but only at 10am the following morning. It was currently 7pm. Knowing there was a home waiting for him, I resolved to beg my host mom to allow me to keep him in my room for the night.
Deisy generously gave me a leash to bring him home. But this rope utterly horrified Campeón. He was squirming and squealing and struggling until finally, I took off the leash. I handed it back to Deisy, thanked her for everything, and began walking home with Campeón. Happy to be leash-less once again, he was practically prancing by my side.
I poked my head in the door of my house. I didn’t want to go inside; Campeón would follow me and I knew I needed permission before a stray dog came inside the home. I shouted my host mom’s name over and over, but my abuelita came instead. When she saw Campeón by my side, she immediately shouted at him, clapped in his face, and shooed him away. Campeón looked like he was about to flee and I panicked for a second, but I managed to calm him down. This thoroughly confused abuelita. My host mom appeared and I explained the situation. He would only be here for a night, he’d have a home at 10am the following morning, I just needed to keep him safe until then, I’d keep him on the roof or in my room, somewhere out of the way, and I’d stay with him the whole time. My host mom looked less than pleased. “They’re dirty,” she said. “They have diseases. I don’t think this is a good idea, but if this is what you want to do, you can. Keep an eye on him.”
After thanking her profusely, I brought him (carried him) up to the roof and we sat together as he slept and I read a book. Sitting there, under the clearest and starriest night sky I’ve seen in Peru, I considered the options for the night. I didn’t want to sleep on the roof and I knew I would need to accompany him during the night. So I crept back to my bedroom to prepare the space for a stray dog. I could hear Campeón whining from the roof, certain that I’d abandoned him. As soon as the space was ready, I carried him into my room. It was 10pm and we were both exhausted. Campeón curled up under my bed and was still all night.
He rose at precisely 6am, tail wagging furiously, ready to face the world. I grabbed a jacket, shoes, and keys and we were off. I carried him through the house as fast as I could, put him down to open the door, turned back around, and… Campeón was peeing in the entrance hallway of the house. To make matters worse, my host family’s house is also a bakery. The first room you walk through is actually the space where all the customers sit to eat. THIS is where Campeón peed.
Grateful that no one else had yet woken, I rushed Campeón outside, he pooped (beyond grateful that didn’t happen in the bakery) and we briskly walked around the block. As frustrated as I was with Campeón in this moment, I noticed that he carried himself with an entirely new demeanor. The day before, his tail was between his legs, his head always slightly bowed, and he had a fearful and submissive expression. Now his tail was wagging, he was running ahead of me, and waiting eagerly for me to catch up. He looked visibly happier.
When we arrived back in front of my home, I faced a dilemma. I needed to clean before anyone in my family woke up. But if Campeón came back inside with me, he’d trot right through and track his mess everywhere in the house. I decided to take a chance; I would close the door on him so he couldn’t come inside, mop up the mess, then find him again outside. So, that’s what I did. He whined for only the first few moments after I shut the door. I grabbed the mop, cleaned up his mess, grabbed the dog food the vet had given me, and stepped outside. I assumed since he hadn’t left my side for the last twelve hours, he would stay close to the house.
I was wrong. He wasn’t anywhere. I ran around the block. Up and down the street. I sat in the plaza to see if he’d wander through. Nothing.
It was 6:30am at this point. I had three and a half hours to find him before he was supposed to be off with his new family. I still had time.
I decided to retrace my steps from the day before, on the path I’d first encountered him. My hope was that he’d returned to whatever corner of the street he was on the day before. It was an hour-long route. Nothing.
With each step, I sank into deeper and deeper guilt. I thought of how the universe had conspired to make sure Campeón would be safe, healthy, and loved, and how I had thrown this all away with my terrible choice to close the door on him. Of course he would think I had abandoned him. How could I have been so cruel? How was I supposed to tell Deisy and her friend that I’d lost him because of my careless decision? It would be my fault that this dog, who’d been hours away from having a home, would once again become an unloved street dog, tearing through trash on the curb for food, shivering curled up on the sidewalk in the rain, enduring kicks from strangers who would never see him as more than a potential vector of disease. I was heartbroken and losing hope.
It was 7:30am. I’d already cried, immersed myself in guilt, and walked a few miles, which is a lot more than I usually accomplish by that point in the morning. I decided I needed to rest. I’d regroup and set off again right after. I sat down to have breakfast with my host family.
“Where’s the dog?” my host mom asked me.
“He left,” I answered, a guilty knot forming in my stomach.
They all agreed they were very impressed that he hadn’t barked or made any noise the night before.
“That’s because Campeón’s the best dog ever,” I thought to myself, tears once again filling my eyes. I had to find him. I just had to. My terrible mistake of closing the door on him could not be the reason he wouldn’t have a home.
It was 8am. I had two hours to go.
Filled with new resolve, I embarked once again on my quest to remedy my potentially tragic error. As I walked with purpose in the opposite direction, the dogs in my path increased exponentially.
Of course! The market! What better place for a dog to find some breakfast than some local street vendors frying up some breakfast?
I wound my way through the streets, pausing when my eyes fell upon a dog that looked remarkably like Campeón. Every time the process was the same: I approached the dog, I’d notice some incongruity in appearance. At the same moment I’d conclude the dog before me wasn’t Campeón, the perrito would see me and scamper away.
“Campeón wouldn’t run away from me,” I told myself. Once he saw me, we’d be inseparable again. It was just a matter of finding him. With earnest determination, I marched on.
And then, just like that, in the distance I saw…was that him? It looked like him, but I’ve been wrong before… no, it had to be him! At that moment, he looked at me.
Yes! It was him!!
Then, he ran away.
…What? Wait, wasn’t this him? I could’ve sworn…
I began to follow him. He was weaving through the market, taking an odd route for a human, but I doggedly stayed the course. I stared and stared…same ears, same eyes, same tail, same exposed ribcage, same mange… this had to be him. Why doesn’t he recognize me?
Just then, a few feet ahead, I saw a street vendor shout and throw something at him. He dodged, turned his head back around, and saw that I was still following him. He jumped and darted forward.
His mannerisms were identical to the night before. Tail between his legs, crouching submissively, and head bowed as he walked crookedly on. His twitching right leg prevented him from walking in a perfectly straight line.
I knew it was him. I continued the pursuit for several blocks. My eyes welled with tears again as I understood the significance of what was happening; in a true reversal of roles from the night before, I was following him, refusing to let him out of my sight.
I could feel the eyes of some nearby police officers on me, wondering what this gringa could want with a street dog. I didn’t care.
At last, Campeón sat next to a car. Here was my chance! I squat down on the opposite side and waddled my way to the front of the car. I poked my head around the corner, slowly showed myself to him, and extended my arm.
He stared for a few seconds. If he doesn’t recognize me now, in the stillness of this moment, a few feet away from each other, then we’re both lost.
Then, at last, recognition!
I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed or experienced such pure, unadulterated joy as Campeón jumping into my arms, knocking me over, barking, and tail wagging ferociously. We sat on that sidewalk for five minutes, overjoyed to have found each other. I kept shouting “Campeón! Campeón!” over and over, and he couldn’t stop moving. The police officers from earlier were definitely still watching, but again, I didn’t care.
It was 9am. We had a whole hour to spare! We walked back to the plaza, inseparable once again. Every once in a while, so ridiculously happy to have him by my side once again, I’d bend down and pet him. Another man who had been observing us approached and asked incredulously if this was my dog. Campeón looks just like every other despised street dog so I knew I’d be in for a lecture about how dangerous stray dogs are and how I need to stay away.
“Yes,” I answered. “He’s mine.”
We sat down on a bench and I plopped the plastic bag full of dog food down in front of him. I’d been carrying this bag around with me since 6:30am. He hardly touched it. I’d feed him a piece at a time out of my hands, but otherwise he wouldn’t eat. A woman passing by saw me doing this and felt compelled to offer her opinion. “He wants trash,” she informed me. “He’s a street dog.” I pretended like I couldn’t speak Spanish.
I continued sitting with him as he slept on the sidewalk. Lying on his left side, I could see his right paw twitching worse than ever. I just sat with him, so grateful to have found him, grateful for the couple from the night before who accompanied us to the vet, grateful for Deisy, grateful for her friend willing to care for Campeón, and grateful my mistake hadn’t been stronger than the conspiracy of the universe to keep this perrito safe, healthy, and loved.
Deisy, my friend from the night before, arrived at the plaza and told me we needed to stop at the veterinarian’s office to pick up food to bring to Campeón’s new home. She purchased forty soles worth of dog food. When I tried to pay her back, she said it was a gift. Again with the gratitude.
We hopped in a mototaxi and began our journey to Campeón’s new home. On the way, I asked Deisy how many dogs her friend cares for. “Twenty,” she replied.
We finally arrived at the house, a surprisingly long way outside of Moyobamba. The home had a simple, but large, painting of a dog and cat on the front. We knocked on the door, inciting twenty dogs to raise the alarm. Over the barks I heard someone shout to pick up Campeón. I scooped him into my arms as the door cracked open and I inched my way inside. Curious dogs crowded all around, some with waists even smaller than Campeón’s, some who could hardly walk, some with half their fur missing. As the dogs became acquainted, I learned that this is actually a refugio, or a shelter, thought it looks like a typical Peruvian home from the outside. They take in rescued street dogs of Moyobamba, usually the most extreme cases. From what I can tell, it’s entirely volunteer-run with a veterinarian they call in case of emergencies. Once the dogs are nursed back to health and stable, they can be adopted. There were a few aspects I still didn’t understand because the explanation was all in Spanish, but from what I could tell it seemed like an incredible organization (here’s the Facebook page). I said goodbye, grateful to be leaving him in their hands.
I visited him a few days later to ensure he was safe, healthy, and loved. He totally was. Apparently he hasn’t stopped eating since his arrival. His twitch didn’t appear to be as strong as it used to be either. I’ve decided I’m going to try to visit Campeón in his new home once a week and volunteer however they might need me.
The prevailing attitude among many Peruvians toward street dogs echoes what I encountered that morning; they’re dangerous, dirty, and diseased. This is why I am so overwhelmed with gratitude to have found Deisy and the couple from the night before. It was incredible that I met these three people, each with a deep (and counter-cultural) love of dogs. Without them, I wouldn’t have known what to do with Campeón and would’ve left him in the street, not knowing I had other options. They’re the heroes (or dare I say champions?) of this story.
the new love of my life
May you find love in unexpected places
and allow yourself to be loved unconditionally
May you forgive yourself when you make mistakes
and allow yourself to experience grace,
remembering that all things work together for good.