Ignorance, Indifference, Inflation Contribute to Growing Population of Stray Dogs, Cats in Buenos Aires

Unable to house their pets, and often unaware of the suffering they cause, Argentine households strained by runaway inflation have abandoned thousands of dogs to roam the streets and reproduce.

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Ignorance, Indifference, Inflation Contribute to Growing Population of Stray Dogs, Cats in Buenos Aires

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BUENOS AIRES, ARGENTINA – Five stray dogs lying in the afternoon sun in Buenos Aires, Argentina’s capital, leap to their feet in unison, barking and wagging their tails as a woman approaches from a distance, bags hanging at her sides.

When she finally arrives, their happiness matches hers. Smiling wide, her eyes closed, she lets the dogs lick her until she distributes their food.

Noelia Oppedisano is one of the founders of the neighborhood group Dogs and Cats of Parque Chacabuco, which tends to abandoned dogs and cats in Buenos Aires’ Parque Chacabuco neighborhood and adjoining areas.

Four neighbors lead the group. The organization’s 12 regular volunteers feed the animals, take them to a neighborhood veterinary hospital, carry out adoption campaigns, and have strays spayed and neutered. To pay for their work, they raise money with collections, raffles and social events.

“We cannot sit idly by seeing how these animals are – sick, skinny,” Oppedisano says. “Every day we notice four or five new dogs wandering in the area, and there are more than 100 cats living in the park.”

Oppedisano has witnessed a lot of tragedies in the course of her work.

“We find burned cats, or with the tail cut off,” she says. “Dogs in garbage bags, newborns with the umbilical cord dangling. Violated Dogs. Some people move and leave the dog in the balcony. The other day, an older person died, and the family took everything from the apartment and threw the dog to the street.”

The abandonment of pets is increasing in Buenos Aires, professionals and activists say. They blame nationwide economic problems, lack of education, and insensitivity to animals.

Over the past five years, more than 40 citizens groups have formed to attend to homeless dogs and cats, according to official figures. The activism has spurred the Buenos Aires city government to create its own program. The city aims to extend the free spaying, neutering and primary care services it provides.

It’s hard to estimate how many stray animals roam the streets because they are constantly moving, says Cecilia Petrini, who heads the city’s Responsible Pet Ownership program.

In September 2004, Buenos Aires had between 800,000 and 1 million dogs and cats, including strays as well as those with homes, she says.

If that ratio has held steady, Buenos Aires would have one dog or cat for every three people, Petrini says. But in some areas, the government estimates there are seven dogs and cats for each person. The government is unable to determine if the stray population has increased since 2004.

Methodological problems have prevented the government from determining how many pets have homes, Petrini says. The government will include a question about pets in a housing survey planned for mid-2015.

So many stray animals are living on the streets that the people feel overwhelmed, Oppedisano says.

Parque Chacabuco is a middle-class neighborhood with a large park. Middle-class households – those in which the average per capita income is 39,500 Argentine pesos ($4,550) and the average family income is 85,680 pesos ($9,870) – comprise 55 percent of the city’s population, according to a 2013 report by the city government.

It is in poor neighborhoods that dogs are free to wander, Oppedisano says. Homeless, malnourished dogs with fleas, diseases and injuries wind up in the park, posing a threat to public health, she says.

Animal rescuer Beatriz Maldonado lives in Asentamiento Los Piletones, one of the poor neighborhoods adjoining Parque Chacabuco. For the past year, she has taken care of dogs and cats that she finds lying in the street.

“At 1 in the morning, I make my last tour of the neighborhood,” she says. “In my house, I now have 15 dogs.”

Some people in the neighborhood mistreat animals, Maldonado says. She considers animal abandonment part of the intrinsic evil of humans.

“Some burn the animals; they hit them, and they throw them to the street,” she says. “Sometimes they give a puppy to the kids so they can play, and when the animal grows, they throw it.”

Not everyone in the neighborhood is like that, Maldonado says. Some residents care for their pets as they do their children, even giving them the food from their mouths.

Some houses in the neighborhood are small and overcrowded. Households without enough space to keep animals indoors allow them to wander the streets. Some of these pets get lost and do not return.

Laura Gramajo, a veterinarian, assists in a monthly clinic in Asentamiento Los Piletones under the auspices of a University of Buenos Aires program, One World, One Health. She provides checkups, vaccinations and spaying and neutering surgeries.

In a time of runaway inflation, pet abandonment is widespread, Gramajo says.

“When people feel they have to shrink the budget because of inflation, they feel they need to get rid of what they have,” she says. “And the first thing they get rid of is pets. This happens in different social classes.”

The government estimates a 2015 inflation rate of 15.6 percent, but the opposition accuses the government of lowballing that figure.

The Economist predicts a 26.5 percent inflation rate for the year.

Inflation decreases Argentines’ purchasing power, economist Alexis Sidirópulos says.

When prices rise and income remains fixed, purchasing power drops and people must reduce spending. This inflationary period began in 2010 and intensified after 2013, Sidirópulos says.

Adriana Fernández Peñalva, a mother of six who lives in a middle-class neighborhood, abandoned the family cat in November because she was unable to care for him.

The family adopted the cat at the beginning of 2014, Fernández Peñalva says. She intended to have him neutered, but the high cost of the operation – 600 pesos ($69) – kept her from doing so.

One day the cat escaped. By the time Fernández Peñalva found him on the streets, he had joined a group of homeless cats. He ran away whenever she attempted to grab him. The family decided to leave him on the street.

“They’ll think that I’m a thoughtless [person] because it is not good what I did,” she says. “But having six children, it cost me a lot of work to take care of it and a lot of money to castrate it and support it.”

Gramajo says she appreciates the work of the neighborhood organizations, but she says they are merely containing the problem, not getting to its root.

“The organizations do a lot with the few resources they have,” she says. “But what is needed is education to change the mentality of the population.”

Gramajo advocates public awareness campaigns and primary school instruction on the care of animals.

The government is aware of the need to facilitate cultural change, Petrini says.

In addition to providing free primary care and spaying and neutering surgeries, it has conducted five public awareness sessions on the importance of having pets spayed and neutered. These sessions, held in city parks and squares, also encouraged people to adopt homeless animals instead of purchasing pets.

“The idea is to increase the quantity of sessions in 2015,” she says. “And achieve that more neighbors and more pets benefit with the program.”

The government aims to broadcast that message throughout the city, Petrini says. It is trying to promote a gradual change in the attitude of the population.

The government says it provides neutering within 24 to 48 hours after receiving a request.

But neighborhood organizations need more government support, Oppedisano says.

“The wait lists are long,” she says. “If there were more free castrations, this would be avoided.”

Professionals participating in the One World, One Health program have prepared a video on responsible pet ownership, says Marcela Vivot, program director. The video will be distributed this year in various city schools.

Classes in Buenos Aires begin in March.

“The idea is to raise awareness for the children to achieve an effect in the families and to stop this phenomenon from going forward,” Vivot says.



Natalia Aldana, GPJ, translated this article from Spanish.