The Dog Problem in South America and 3 Ways You Can Help

South America is an incredible place, but it’s got a big problem. Abandoned animals. Stray dogs and cats are roaming the streets in alarming numbers.

I always do my best to accept and embrace the cultural attitudes in the places I go, but throughout South America, I found it incredibly hard to sympathize with the general public opinion on pets. It’s sad to see so many dogs cast aside, mal-nourished, mis-treated, and roaming the streets. In the outskirts of Santiago, dogs line the sides of roads like squirrels do in New England.

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Unfortunately, the problem extends beyond simple population control. There are attitudes and cultural normalcies that have developed over generations than cannot easily be changed. Families typically do not domesticate pets for companionship. Instead dogs are used for home protection, and when the pet gets older, becomes ill, or the family cannot afford to keep it, the pet is left to fend for itself. And then there are all those born homeless to start.

Thankfully, there are people taking a stand to aid in abandoned animal rescue efforts. And to varying degrees, there are ways we can all help if we chose to.

1. Donate

There are plenty of animal shelters, clinics, and rescue centers doing great work across South America. Even donations as small as $15 can sponsor a dog getting spayed or neutered. Of course, if you plan to donate, do a little research of your own and find the place you feel best about. There’s a pretty comprehensive list of animal rescue groups in Santiago, Chile here, and one of my favorite organizations is Humane Society International.

2. Volunteer your time

There are many options when it comes to volunteering abroad, but we don’t often think about animal centers. The pictures that usually come to mind are helping children in schools, clean up and infrastructure projects in third-world villages, etc. Those are of course initiatives worthy of your time, but there are other options for the animal lovers out there.

I volunteered in a wild animal rehabilitation center in the Amazon rainforest called Sacha Yacu and it was such a cool experience! Although there is the awesome appeal of having a monkey on your shoulder, or playing with other exotic jungle animals, you should consider working with street animals too. Santiago, Chile specifically has the worst stray dog problem of any place I’ve seen. But there’s hope.

Organizations such as South America Inside are popping up at a faster rate than ever, offering travelers a wealth of volunteer opportunities around the world. If you’d like to visit Chile for a month, and you love dogs and cats, check out this program. If Peru is calling your name, and you don’t have more than a week or two, check out Volunteer Peru’s Dog Rescue program. You’ll be nestled 10 minutes from Cusco’s Plaza de Armas and just an hour train ride on the gorgeous Inca Rail to Machu Picchu.

3. Adopt a dog

US Olympic Skier Gus Kenworthy made international news when he became determined to adopt a pack of stray dogs from Sochi, but have you heard the story of Chili Dog?

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Pictured above, this clever four-legged friend photo-bombed the O’Connor’s family vacation photo. After the picture, the dog stayed with the family for the next 8 hours as they explored  Valparaíso. When the O’Connors had to return to their cruise ship, daughter Kaylan was heart-broken to leave the dog behind. After arriving home in Washington state, she began an exhausting and determined month long search for this pup who she did eventually find, transport back to the US, and affectionately named “Chili Dog.”

And then there’s Arthur.

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This incredible dog decided to team up with four Swedes partaking in the Adventure Racing World Championships, and with the final 2 stretches of the 430-mile race through Ecuadorian jungles to go, he refused to be left behind. When Mikael Lindord and team left the shore to begin their 36-mile kayak across the coast, Arthur kept swimming until Lindord hoisted him aboard. After the race, Mikael couldn’t leave his new team member and decided to adopt Arthur.

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Unfortunately, not all travelers are willing to go to such lengths to save the stray dogs that steal our hearts. And not everyone has the means to – that’s okay. But wouldn’t it be amazing if more of us took a page out of Gus, Kaylan, and Lindord’s book and created action by setting such powerful examples.

My wife and I spent a week volunteering at the Elephant Nature Park in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where there is also a dog rescue program. Of the over 500 dogs on the property, either saved from the streets, the dog meat trade, abuse, abandonment, car strikes, or the Bangkok flood years back, one little puppy stole my wife’s heart. And mine right after. She was rescued from a drain in a Thai military camp that had threatened to gas all the dogs on the station. Thankfully, volunteers from ENP got there in time and saved who would we end up calling Ellie and bringing home with us.

Dogs around the world, abroad and at home, need our help. And our love. Parts of South America are especially sad for animal lovers to travel, and so we must act. Spread the word, share ideas, donate to support organizations and individuals doing good work on the ground, do the work yourself and go as a volunteer, or if you can, give a pup a home.

Of course the easiest way to help is simply sharing this post and any other articles you may come across that address this issue. Awareness becomes advocacy, and advocates breed change.

For more information on rescue dog resources and international pet travel:

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Jonathan Ronzio
Jonathan Ronzio

Adventure filmmaker/photographer, outdoor athlete, & speaker. Director, Between The Peaks. Founder & Chief Editor, Explore Inspired

7 Comments
  1. Adopting a dog is NOT the answer. Education of the people and sterilisation of all the street dogs is the only way to stop this.
    Most of these dogs would hate to be couped up in a house after the amazing freedom they have experienced.
    They even exist on Easter Island.

    1. Hey Penny, thanks for reading! You’re right, adopting a dog does not solve this problem. But it most definitely could help save one life. From the health and living conditions in many of the dogs I’ve seen in my travels, I think providing a good home, with reliable meals, plenty of exercise, lots of love, and most importantly, a clean bill of health, would be an improvement for the few lucky puppies that may get it. Would it put a dent in the issue if you adopted a stray dog from Chile? No. Would that dog have a better, and probably longer life? Yes. Just my opinion as an active and loving dog owner though!

  2. Hi
    I am in chile at the moment and am so sad to see stray dogs everywhere! I would love to help but it’s difficult to find out how/where. In Calama I think the problem is even worse than Santiago. I would love to adopt and save at least 1 dog from a life on the streets.

  3. When in Chile recently, I thought perhaps that a mobile feeding, spay/neuter, and curbside animal health service (provided by volunteers) might work. The spay/neuter component would help keep the street dog population from replicating (though abandoned dogs would ensure that the work would have to be ongoing). Mobile feeding/feeding centers for the street dogs of each neighborhood would help with their general health and administration of medicine when necessary, and treating superficial wounds, mange, etc. would be possible. Severely injured or ill dogs could be brought to local vets for humane euthanasia if necessary. (It is dreadful to let an untreated animal die in the street over the course of agonized days.)

    Such a service would help with the objections above, that there are too many dogs to adopt, and that most street dogs are used to a great deal of freedom of movement, and so wouldn’t thrive in restricted shelter environments.

    The vast, vast majority of the many Chilean street dogs I observed were well socialized to humans and other dogs. The majority were males, many unfixed; the weak and the old apparently didn’t survive long or were removed by Chilean authorities (??).

    A relatively small network of volunteer could coordinate such a feeding/ spay-neuter/ vet-tech level of health-care from a few rented apartments throughout a medium-sized city. I wish I could pioneer such an operation, but don’t yet have the necessary veterinary skills. If anyone knows of such a thing to volunteer with, please comment! Thank you.

  4. My wife and I adopted a dog from Easter Island, this is her second year with us, and though the return trip to get her put us in debt. Skippy was well worth the $$. Wish I can post a picture, she’s a beaut!!!! I wrote a book about the whole adventure, I hope to get it published and start helping the stray dogs in Easter Island. Would like to keep in touch with you if possible? Blessings

    1. That’s awesome Ed! Congrats! My wife and I lucked out that we didn’t have to go back to Thailand to get Ellie, we were able to bring her straight back. But you’re completely right, whatever you have to do is worth it in the end. Definitely keep me in the loop about the progress of your book, and I’d love to have you share your Easter Island rescue story as a post on Explore Inspired. I’ll follow up via email. Cheers!

  5. I run a shelter in Brazil and have 102 dogs here at the moment. We have had quite a few International adoptions and have followed their lives as companion animals post adoption. Dogs are much happier in a home free of the stress of hunting for food. They adapt amazingly well and seem to be grateful to be part of home life. I have 18 street dogs living in the house. The rest are in large kennels awaiting a chance to be adopted. The situation in Brazilian rural areas is critical. We take volunteers and are looking for people to accompany dogs to other countries which brings the travel costs down significantly. I enjoyed the article it pretty much says it all about South America’s attitude to animals.

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