What to do when you are on the road and miss your canine or feline companion
I know there are many animal lovers among backpackers. I recently saw a video about the story of a dog in Brazil who, every night, risks her life to carry food to her friends. That got me thinking… Hardly any human being would do that, and we have a lesson to learn from this amazing dog. I don’t have dogs at home in Italy – I have several cats, all adopted. I have volunteered at a cat shelter for years, and I keep helping local shelters with donations, or searching for a home for their guests. I always campaign in favour of sterilisation of pets and strays, to reduce the risk of spreading letal diseases (such as feline HIV or leukemia which are spread through bites and scratches during fights, to give just one example) and to minimize the chances that new puppies or kitties are born for which no family can be found. I am convinced that sterilisation is the best way to ensure cats and dogs don’t end up living in crowded shelters or, even worst, in the streets of city jungles, where they desperately search for food and shelter against the heat or rain or cold weather; with nobody to take care of them if they get sick.
Believe it or not, whenever I travel, the face I miss the most is that of my cat Minnie, closely followed by that of my other cats. It breaks my heart not seeing them every day, not listening to their soft purrs, not being there to play. Yet, I somehow end up meeting lovely cats and dogs. Many hostels have their own, so it happened a few times that I shared my bed with one of them (although this meant breaking the rules as I was not supposed to let them in, but shhhh don’t tell anybody!). While travelling in Argentina in 2012, a couple of dogs followed me around El Calafate. I eventually went to a pet shop to buy them food, and each night, after dinner, I would carry my leftovers (and at times the leftovers of the whole restaurant) to feed the strays. I know giving human food to animals is not great, but at least it was something. Through the hostel, I even made a donation to a local shelter.
A rather funny scene I saw in November 2013 was that of two dogs who, in Flores (Guatemala), jumped in the lake. At first I thought they wanted to just cool down a bit, but then I noticed that they started swimming towards the other side of the lake. The one in the front kept looking back to make sure his friend was following. It took them about 15 minutes to get to the other side. But then, we all know dogs are good swimmers.
Last February, I was walking around aimlessly in Cartagena, Colombia, at night, enjoying the cool breeze after the daily heat. A dog started to follow me around. I thought she may be hungry so I stopped to buy her food. I fed her but she did not seem really interested. Eventually a lady who observed the scene told me: “no busca comida, busca familia!” “She is not looking for food, she is looking for a family”. I wish I could be her family! Eventually, she decided other travellers were more interesting to follow, so she abandoned me.
However, the top of my experience with dogs on the road was in Peru. I went on a hike to Marcahuasi, the most remote place you can imagine. The main village in the area, San Pedro de Casta, is very small and there are many dogs around. One even walked me to the hospedaje municipal (the only accommodation for travellers in the area), right to my room. I guess he wanted to make sure it was clean and everything worked ok. When I started my hike, at 6:00 am the day after, a dog started following me. I thought he would leave eventually, as the trek was tiring. He actually joined me all the way up, and then down, for a full 8 hours of huffing and puffing. It was a lonely but enjoyable walk (I met 3 peasants on the way, a lady with a donkey, and a lonely donkey, and that was it), so Barbon (that’s how I named him) was my only company. Each time I stopped for breath, he stopped too, and if he thought I was taking too long a break, he’d yelp to encourage me to keep on walking. When I reached the top of Marcahuasi, I shared my snacks with him, and we posed for pictures together. He then guided me back down. I later learned from other friends who went on the same hike that he also followed them (I had asked them specifically to look for him!). I will always carry him in my heart.
So, what can backpackers living on a budget do to help animals they meet during their wanders? The first and most logical thing would be feeding them. At some point or another, you will have leftovers, you won’t be able to finish your meal. So take them and make a dog happy – as I have already said, human food is not great for dogs, but strays end up having bad food in the street anyways, and they have to fight for it too. The other thing you can do is giving them fresh, clean water. Donations to local shelters and associations are an easy way to help: ask locally or search the web, make sure the association is a genuine one you can trust, and not working for profit – the cat shelter I volunteered for in Italy devoted 100% of the donations it received to the cure of its animals, whether it was for health care or food. Even if you can spare just a few dollars, it helps. Last but not least… Have you thought about voluntourism? This means, quite literally, taking volunteer vacations: the same association you can donate money to will most likely need a hand, either to take care of their animals or to raise more funds. One example? If you are a good photographer, take pictures of the cats and dogs living at the shelter, and put together a calendar with a very short story of them and of the association. In most countries, many calendars are sold over the Christmas period to be given as presents. If you find a tipography that prints them for a reasonable price and sponsors which in exchange for some publicity on the calendar give you some of the funds, you can be more than sure to make profits for the shelter. This is a great way to put together your love for animals and your passion for wandering the world. I will definitely do it on my next trip. What about you?