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The Saint of Punta Arenas

CHILE | Friday, 16 November 2007 | Views [2590] | Comments [3]

I will begin this story with a quote from our blog ¨What´s the Point¨:

...down here, what you see everywhere, are stray dogs.  I am the first person to say that you have to help people before you help animals, but this is ridiculous.  You see animals absolutely everywhere - EVERYWHERE! - with broken paws, gouged-out eyes, bleeding tumors, cold, sick, being hit by cars, mothers with 6 puppies, and they are all starving.

Unfortunately, it is no different in the town of Punta Arenas.  You could say that Punta Arenas is a town in the south of Chile, but the word south is an understatement for this place.  The town is situated on the Strait of Magellan, the very extreme southern passage that the Portuguese (Melissa keep reminding me that Magellan´s name was actually Magalhaes) explorer was looking for to cut some time off of the Europe-Asia sea voyage.  If that weren´t enough, PA is only 55 miles north of the physical southern end of the American land mass that stretches (if you discount the Panama Canal) unbroken from the tippy top of Alaska and Canada all the way down to Cabo Froward.  Beyond Froward is legendary Tierra del Fuego, Cape Horn, and the Big Ice, Antarctica itself. 

But what IS different in Punta Arenas is what brought us to Punta Arenas - Corporaccion de la Defensa y Derechos de los Animales - The corporation for the defense and the rights of animals, otherwise known in Punta Arenas as La Protectora.  When we landed in Puerto Natales after a beautiful 4 day ferry trip through the uninhabited, pristine fjords of southern Chile, our plan was to head to Torres del Paine to tackle Patagonia´s most famous trek.  But, as I waited outside Meli´s massage parlor (traveling is hard work, you know) I saw an article about a shelter in Punta Arenas that worked with the stray population down here.  Combine our experience in Valpo with Vito, Meli´s love of anything huggable, and the sudden desire (which immediately turned into a lifelong dream) to see the Strait of Magellan and Tierra del Fuego, and we were on our way.

We arrived in Punta Arenas with only the plan to volunteer at the shelter.  We had no idea where to stay or how to get there once we got into the town.  After a four hour bus ride south, we ended up in Punta Arenas and made our way to the shelter.  There, we waited outside for a bit with a few strays with what sounded like a thousand barking dogs inside.  After about a half hour, a woman showed up, all smiles, and let us in.  Were we the gringos that called, yes we were, come in come in...so we went into the office. Now, Meli and I are both used to animal shelters back home - sterile, clean places with pens for the forlorn dogs that sit in wait for someone to claim them or that other, more gruesome option.  This is not the case at La Protectora.  Here, in this donation dependent (the state offers little or no help), volunteer dependent, built-with-love institution, there are open pens.  Many of the 150 - yes 150 - dogs live in the open with one another.  The few pens they have are for dogs in heat, mothers with pups (sometimes), sick dogs, new arrivals, and a blind fellow who is just the most beautiful dog you have ever seen but is totally helpless.  The open pens allow the dogs to run around, sniff one another in peace and be, well, dogs.  This also means that a new visitor is greeted with the jumping, wagging, and licking of 50 or 60 dogs at a time, not to mention the salutations of an ill-tempered little fellow named Ritalin who is intent on landing a bite by any means necessary.  The open pens also mean that the place is hard to clean and hard to keep clean, but more on that later.

After a little introduction to her pet project, the woman who runs the place (we will call her the Saint for the sake of privacy and because it´s just plain true) asked us if we would like to get a bite to eat before work.  Famished for both food and hospitatlity, Meli and I readily accepted and we hopped in her car.

Now, a word on trust.  A page out of the thinking of many people I know, ehhehmmm Mom, would read like this....

...oh my God, in her car!  They don´t even know this woman!  What if she wants to take them somewhere and hurt them - I hear South America is a dangerous place - what if she kidnaps them - can I pay the ransom?  What if she is a terrorist - Al Qaeda - and - oh my God, brainwashes them and turns them into Taliban...what if....

Trust is a precious thing.  Many of us have experiences in our life that make it so we don´t want to trust strangers.  Many, many, many more of us have a friend who has an uncle that has a friend that knows a bartender who went to a place and was robbed and kidnapped but thankfully made it out safe.  Still more of us watch the news, or Nancy Grace, or America´s Most Wanted and decide never to leave the house...ever.  Unfortunately, if you want to get to know people, you need to leave yourself open to them, and that openness can lead to being hurt, usually more emotionally than physically.  So we got in the freakin´car!

We went and stopped at a place to pick up some food, all the while chatting about the animal problem in Chile.  The woman said she would be right back and left us in the car...with the car running.  Talk about trust!  She bought us some food and took us to her house...again, talk about trust!  We went inside and a had along lunch, full of stories and all in Spanish (I am trying, really).  The saint told us the story of how she opened La Protectora 17 years ago when her husband died.  She is now 72 and her passion and dedication have allowed the place to stay open in the face of amazing difficulty.  Both Meli and I were astonished and humbled by the example of this woman who had found passion even after being a wife and a mother and in the later years of her life.  We were also amazed at the fact that she could lift more than me and was more physcially fit than pretty much anyone either of us knew.  So, humbled, amazed, and full, we headed back to the shelter to earn our lunch.

Being understaffed, the daily tasks at La Protectora were plentiful. When we asked what we should do, the saint stated anything, anything, anything you do is of great help. And so we geared ourselves up: two makeshift pooper scoopers, and dingy overcoat, we entered the large dog pen. In an instant we were greeted with 30 barking, licking, excited, jumping, perritos. They gave us love immediately, each jumping higher than the other to attract some love its way. If you would walk away, some would cry, chase you down, stand by your side.  In Meli´s words, "This is my idea of heaven." As much as Steve and I wanted to spend the hours petting and loving up these dogs, there was much work to do, and so we got to it. We spent hours simply cleaning up dog poop. We would meander around the fields to find scattered poop, sometimes discovering a poop mine, where we would remain for fifteen minutes. We got to know every type of poop there was by the time the day was through (you would be surpirsed how many), but not to worry, those plaintive eyes made it worth it. Every now and then, we would break to simply play with the pups - hold their faces in our hands, play chase with the big guys, pick them up and cradle them in our love. It made the scooping of pooping oh so worth it. That was the best part.

Once we cleaned up an area as best as we could, it was feeding time! What a voracious frenzy that was.  Meals consisted of rice cooked with meat starting to turn rancid (dogs can handle the microbes, and La protectora, had us cook the meat down to kill excess bacteria). We would first count the dogs in each area, relay the information to the server, at which point she would plop some grub on steel pans and we would feed the little guys. Never was La Protectora so silent as during feeding time (kind of reminds us of home). Sometimes, dogs would travel to plate to plate, often being growled back to their original spot. Each dog had their own heaping serving. Each was accounted for. Each fell quickly into a food stupor once finished. How is La Protectora able to feed such a crowd?  Much of the food is donated rancid meat that cannot be sold to the public.  Seldom, people will stop by with a bag of dog food. Truth be told, this is not enough. After dinner, it's time to close up shelter for the night. We say our goodbyes and promise to come by the next day.

La Protectora is a beautiful endeavor that is not supported by the government and poorly supported by the local community. Worse yet, no vet pays a visit to offer their services to the shelter. If a dog is infirmed, the saint must scrounge up funds to take them to a vet.  People will tie dogs to the exterior fence or dump them over the fence at night - and when this happens, the staff often arrives in the morning to find the new dog mauled by the ragtag pack that already resides there. In our time there, in just one day alone, three dogs were left at her footstep, one being a very pregnant mommy. La Protectora has reached her capacity of strays, but still does not turn away a helpless, homeless, or injured animal. The shelter after 17 years of use and made out of permeable wood is sordid with bacterica. There aren´t even enough homes for all of them. Of the 30 puppies that are brought there or are born there in a week or two, only the 1 or 2 strongest will survive the diseases, cold, and rain.  Yet she is doing the best she can do.  What we ask of you all who have read is donate an amount to La Protectora. She has a paypal account on her website posted below. Five dollars, ten, maybe even make a pledge to send 5/10 dollars (the equivalant of a starbucks coffee!) every month. If we all do it, we can possibly raise a few hundred a month for this amazing woman and those dogs. Then she can finally see the day where she has a proper facility to house these pooches, with an in house veternarian. Let´s band together for this one. Those dogs were so loving, maybe with our help they can be adopted and become the center of little child´s world! 

Thanks so much everyone. Steve and I lamented so many a time that we could not export them home.  We would really appreciate it if you could lend a helping wallet. =)


Click on the donate button and give what you can!  Choose US English at the top of the page.  If you have a paypal account its even easier!  By the way, go thru the photos and see if you can find us!


Steve and Melissa

Tags: Work




Oh wow, this is like what I see at work everyday times 100. I know how hard it is to see these things and maybe one day if things go as planned I will be able to go to places like that and make a difference. All i can say is people need to snip and clip their freaking pets (spay and neuter)!
Ok im going to end my rant sorry and maybe tomarrow at work I'll help some puppies and kitties with you guys in mind. I proud of yall for facing this head on as most people would prefer to stay in their little bubble and just go through life like this does not exist.

  Kristen Nov 26, 2007 12:54 PM


Hi guys,

I was just googleing our name and came upon this! Thanks! Can I forward this on to Helia? She doesn't like to be called a saint though.



  bruce willett Nov 29, 2007 7:29 AM


Great article! I just returned from PA; stray dogs have pretty much taken over the town, and most people seem to ignore them. I bought some ham and cheese and passed it out over a few days to some of the dogs hanging out in the town square, but I wish I would have read about Corporación de la Defensa y Derechos de los Animales before I arrived. I would have loved to have volunteered at the shelter. *Bendita sea la señora que cuida a los pobrecitos.* I'm going to make a donation to the shelter.

  Lisa Dec 27, 2007 10:40 AM

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