Ecuador Dog Tails: Animal culture contrasts, the proof in the puppies, caapi vines for canines and stories from Cuenca’s free range dog park

Apr 1, 2016 | 2 comments

By Scott Fugit
Photos by Dee Fugit

At first glance, I just knew the poor critter was dead. Laying in the street against the curb, three feet from speeding traffic, the curled up perro had seen its last sunrise. Longish red fur and a sizeable head indicated a possible chow mix. As I got closer, I saw no movement, but no blood either. My morning five mile urban hike to Spanish class took me up Cuenca’s busy Avenida Gonzales Suarez, west towards Huana Capac and smack into the controlled chaos that is urban Cuenca’s morning wake up call. Pedestrians are both cautious and quick. So are the dogs.

Not dead, just napping.

Not dead, just napping.

This one wasn’t quick enough. There he was, laying still in the gutter. From 20 yards away, I could see his fur moving with the blowing bus fumes. Then, a small boy stepped out of a nearby tienda and yelled something into the din of rushing traffic. Suddenly, the dog got up, casually stretched, trotted across the sidewalk and disappeared into a dark doorway — ignoring me as I strode past. Oblivious to 45mph instant death just inches away, he’d found a warm sunny spot for snoozing – in the busy street.

Canine devotees who visit this city will notice such things. On prominent display, is a petri dish of Ecuadorian pooch culture. It’s the human dog relationship in concentrated form. Included are unusual canine behavior conditioning, a huge range of threat perception in animals, and some amazing dog adaptability.

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Expat dog lovers call it just another day in the huge, free range, unrestrained, off leash, all-breed dog park that is Cuenca, Ecuador.

For Sale at the Feria Libre Mercado, a puppy awaits its fate.

For Sale at the Feria Libre Mercado, a puppy awaits its fate.

We had heard all the stories, so we expected to see it. After just finishing up our paid tour of Cuenca’s mammoth Feria Libre Mercado, we turned around and there they were – dozens of little puppies for sale, all about eight weeks old and in a big cage, sleepily awaiting their fate. Potential buyers looked on with little kids who pointed and giggled with delight. Inside the wire was a perfect random sample of Cuenca’s street dogs – the puppy version.

There were larger breeds like Saint Bernards and Labs, mid-sized dogs such as husky’s and cocker spaniels, dachshunds and bassets were the hound choices, while the terriers were represented by schnauzers, a westie and several wirehaired fox mixes. Toy breeds included shih tzus, Yorkies, and the most popular breed in Cuenca – white poodles and their variants. We saw no prices displayed, but the vendor was busily working the crowd – cute pup in hand. It was hard not to think of pet stores in ‘60’s America. Again, Ecuador takes us back in time.

Here’s where local animal culture can often clash with good intentions. Easily, expats might find themselves holding a new dog in one hand, and their money in the other. Before you step into this mess, consider the implications.

Some dogs at the market are luckier.

Some dogs at the market are luckier.

Our mercado tour guide gave us the usual advice – beware of health problems and socialization issues common to “mill” pups. Also, think of the large number of shelter animals in Cuenca needing adoption. I’ve also heard, “In a few months, you can pick them up on the street for free.” It’s an ongoing expat debate. Help a poor puppy versus, do you really want to support this trade? Some gringos say, “They shouldn’t let them sell un-fixed dogs. Cuenca should pass a law……” Others advise, “STFU – it’s a different animal culture here and not your choice to make. Live with it.”

Of course, for Dee and I, there was never a question. We took a long look at the cute little dogs, decided on two favorites, thought about the cultural questions and challenges they represented – then went to buy pineapple.

A Happy Dogs in Cuenca surgical team at work.

A Happy Dogs in Cuenca surgical team at work.

“We have water!” The word goes out as the faucet responds on our first try. Agua is helpful during a long day of multiple surgeries. The steep road down to the hillside terrace location is rutted, but the school building is large, has electricity plus a workable banos. Plush indeed. Conditions are usually worse. My wife and I are helping with the crew from Happy Dogs in Cuenca as they busily set up their gear. A veterinary professor supervises the four surgical teams. She, and ten students with six to eight committed support volunteers, will spay and neuter 120 dogs over the weekend. The two-day effort tends to wilt most well-meaning newbies. Veterans tell me, “Most people can’t even stand up that long. Who wants to spend their weekend washing surgical instruments with a toothbrush?”

Somebody must. Happy Dogs in Cuenca has been arranging these clinics for over four years. By helping control animal overpopulation, HDiC has had a major, positive effect on Cuenca’s pet culture. Municipal authorities have taken notice and are now getting involved in the effort. “When we fix over a hundred dogs in a neighborhood, it has an immediate impact,” says Inge Palmer, founder and brain trust of HDiC. Fewer street dogs means fewer problems – and happier people. Inge quickly follows with, “How’s your back? We don’t want any injuries.”

I’m definitely feeling the long hours. Tomorrow, it’s my dogs that will be barking. Several HDiC clinic regulars have nursing or vet tech backgrounds. Many are women with ranch experience. They’re used to this. “I tell people these clinics are grueling work, and it’s a long day stuck at an isolated location.” Inge smiles. “Often, I have to suggest they gather donated towels and blankets instead – it’s easier, and we definitely need linens.”

The proof is in the puppies.

The proof is in the puppies.

After an early morning start, we’re finishing up an hour from sundown. Dee and I are bent over a young, mixed breed female pup as she recovers from anesthesia. With a little help, the dog slowly stands and staggers for the door – and towards an unknown fate. A volunteer explains, “She was just hanging around with no owner. For a street dog, she’s very sweet. We usually do several strays at each clinic. After surgery, our only option is to let them go again. Whatever happens to this dog, it won’t include two litters of puppies every year.”

As we finish up and prepare to leave, the recovering perro hesitates at the door, leans against my leg and stares out into Ecuador’s evening light.

Her improved potential seems like a fitting metaphor. Happy Dogs in Cuenca is all about the future. Hard work today makes for a better dog culture tomorrow. The proof is in the puppies – or lack thereof.

Gringo’s turn-ons include his cardboard box and seasonally festive hats.

Gringo’s turn-ons include his cardboard box and seasonally festive hats.

Without a doubt, the Cuenca dog culture has a most popular breed. Don’t take notice, or you will start to see them everywhere. WPM’s –white poodle mixes. For whatever reason, they predominate on the street. Gringo is one of the lucky ones. He wandered into the Inca Bar, took a quick look around and adopted owner Mike Sena along with his staff. This popular expat hangout has been his home ever since. Consistent with local dog culture, Gringo was once totally free range. Around here, if a dog doesn’t like its home, they can find another one. The waitress tells us, “We try to keep an eye on him during the day, but he pretty much goes where he wants.” In Cuenca, dogs have choices. She quickly adds, “He likes the bar scene though.”

From his perch on the narrow balcony, Gringo spots something on the Tomebamba river path below, quickly trots through the forest of legs in the crowded bar, down the steep stone steps and out to greet another friend – either two or four legged. His behavior is focused but non-aggressive, confident but not territorial. After meeting and mixing with several other dogs, tails wagging, he’s soon back upstairs. “He does this all day long. He’s the greeter.”

My wife is talking dog behavior with another Inca patron. “Most dog hostility is based on fear, although fences and leashes also contribute. Restraint breeds aggression.” It’s easy to see in Cuenca. Dogs behind gates usually bark and growl. The street dogs typically just ignore you. A retired vet tech from Arizona tells us over beers, “Dogs are more relaxed in Cuenca. In three years, I’ve never seen street dogs fighting. It’s a cultural thing, there’s a higher level of socialization. They seem to get along. They’re like the people.”

Chancho works the crowd at Inca Bar.

Chancho works the crowd at Inca Bar.

Here’s a bar line you don’t hear often, “Don’t look now, but I’ve got a bulldog under my table.”

Gringo has pals who visit the Inca Bar. Although it’s not uncommon to see well-mannered dogs on leashes in some Cuenca businesses, local dogs are typically very wary of pub owners. Gringo and his pal are the exception. Chancho comes in on a leash and receives permission to work the crowd. One rule – no lap dancing. A large chunk of grunting, sociable, nose-free muscle, he goes table to table like a politician. The Inca patrons love it. His owner tells us, “People always ask about him, so now we’re both regulars. He really enjoys meeting new amigos.”

It’s a good attitude that observant expats can pick up from local dogs. Be outgoing and sociable. Say hola to everyone. Be ready to mix with others who are slightly different, but basically the same. Show patience and get along. You’re off leash and in Cuenca, make friends and wag your tail.

Samson and Pulgita during their home trial period.

Samson and Pulgita during their home trial period.

The big beautiful home sat in a natural green hillside terrace. Our taxi reached it by scratching up a steep, rutted drive. The popular B&B is surrounded by terraced flower beds, rhododendrons, fig trees and backed by a steep Eucalyptus forest. It looks down on the red tile roofs of Baños, Azuay. We had escaped the foam fights of Cuenca’s carnival for a quiet weekend. But as always in Ecuador, you are never far from dogs.

“This is Samson and Pulgita,” our host explained in her melodic Spanish. Luckily, we had translation help from another guest, a Spanish teacher from Maine. “They’re not sure if the dogs will be staying.”

Interesting comment. Dee’s 25 years of evaluating dog behavior kicked in. The questions started. Both dogs had showed up separately within the last two months. Dee checks their teeth for age. Both were under two years old. Samson, the male, is a medium sized mix breed. Pulgita, which means “little flea” is a pure bred shih tzu. We stroll the grounds petting the pups and chatting. Both dogs were great with the grandkids who named them. Atypical for Ecuador street dogs, they were non-aggressive, curious and affectionate. They were also inseparable pals.

We always seem to get plenty of details on dogs.

“These animals are obviously well socialized. Where did they come from?” No idea, our host explains. Probably somewhere down in town, which was more than a mile away. Well behaved, they ignore the chickens, horses and the rabbit. Pets are never allowed in the house, or these would surely be surfing the sofa. Their good behavior is guardedly rewarded. Samson and Pulgita spend nights in a comfy shop area. They are fed regularly. Screen doors keep them outside, but nothing stops them from leaving.

After a morning of coffee in the sunshine and birdwatching from a patio chair, we left the two dogs napping in the garden, and snuck down the long drive for an afternoon hike into town. Narrow sidewalks, busy traffic and noisy buses discourage unleashed pooches. We shopped for an hour and started back to the lodge. As we climb on our bus, standing in the center of the busy intersection, was Samson. Dee yelled at him from the window. An hour later, back at the lodge, he was waiting for us in the garden.

At the end of our visit, it took several minutes to say goodbye to our gracious hosts – even longer for the dogs.

A week after we left, Pulgita, the little shih tzu, seemed to just vanish. A permanent fixture for weeks, suddenly one morning she was gone. Three days later, the little dog reappeared. She had been bathed, fully groomed, and had a new red bow in her hair. Cuenca’s dog culture is a community event. As the old saying goes, it takes a pueblo.

Happy hour brings more dog talk. Everyone concurred. We had seen the classic Cuenca pet arrangement – unplanned, casual, subject to quick change, based on an unspoken common agreement, but also with an extended trial period. Loyalty has to be earned and humans are not the only decision makers. In Ecuador, canine culture can get complicated. Visitors should be ready. Carry dog treats.

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Ayahuasca gives dogs “visions of their prey.”

Canine traditions can go even deeper down a hole in Ecuador. You probably saw it. “Hunting and Hallucinogens.” Who wouldn’t notice this article? I certainly did, while casually flipping through the May, 2015 Journal of Ethnopharmacology. Two scientists got paid for studying the use of psychoactive and hallucinogenic plants to improve dog performance. Thank you Florida International University. The researchers earned their money doing field work in southern Ecuador with the Shuar and Quichua tribes. Dozens of traditional florae and their uses for animal treatment and care were studied. They also investigated plants used to “enhance ability.”

Revealed in the science is a relationship as old as time, and as young as a newborn puppy. Dog loving travelers take note. The dog culture you see in Cuenca and throughout Ecuador is more than just a pet thing. The Shuar believe that Nunkui, the earth mother, has provided them dogs as a gift. The Quichua trust in dogs for protection against malevolent forest spirits. These and other traditional cultures revere canines as indispensable on many levels, hunting dogs in particular. Favorites are highly prized and well cared for, far beyond most western perceptions. The study authors report, “A Shuar woman, for example, may nurse a pup along with her own children.” Startling, unless you believe that dogs can be gods, dream for us, have souls, or that they carry our spirits to the final resting place.

Also documented were traditional “ethnoveterinary pharmacopoeias” used by locals to make their animals more successful hunters. Enter Banisteriopsis caapi, the famous ayahuasca vine. Besides allowing humans to talk to dead ancestors, it also helps hunting dogs put food on the table by “diminishing extraneous signals, giving stamina, and enhancing olfactory perception.” Come again? As the authors say, that would at first appear “counter intuitive.” Uh-huh. If the average gringo moves at all during an ayahuasca experience, it’s to stumble outside and hurl. Yet somehow, in the wet Ecuador lowlands, even during long nighttime hunts, ayahuasca is used to keep hunting dogs “from being lazy, stay alert, communicate with their masters and produce visions of their prey.” This can’t be good for the spotted paca, a 20-pound, nocturnal cuy-like rodent prized for its delicate meat. They flee down deep jungle burrows near water. What follows is not the stereotypical ayahuasca celebration. The study makes no effort to determine if the playing field is leveled, and the pacas are chewing the vine too.

With more than 150 detailed references, exhaustive discussions on depuratives (deodorants), psychoactives, opthamalics and olfactory sensitizers, we finally come to the study’s obvious question, which is the same as the initial one. Would Ecuador’s tribal hunters use ayahuasca for hunting dogs if it resulted in the humans going hungry? Uhhhhhh…….no? The authors agreed. Dad’s college money wasn’t wasted. Hallucinogens help canines hunt. The proof is the wild game protein that sustains indigenous families – and their valued dogs.

Then, in the study conclusions, we get the ironic stamp of a truly twisted animal society. The authors suggest “…..perhaps these plant substances could enhance a dog’s ability to detect illegal drugs…….” Beautiful. Let’s weaponize a traditional and ancient hallucinogen to engineer canines into better soldiers – in the war on drugs. Dog bless America.

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Free range wall art in Cuenca.

“There’s Izzy and Chili.” From our Cuenca apartment, Dee is surveying the live webcams within the Idaho boarding kennel we carefully chose back home. Nicely visible in the supervised recreation area, 3,960 miles away, our two dogs are calmly lounging with many others of various breeds – almost like a tiny Ecuador. For six weeks, they will stay comfortable and well cared for at this very successful national franchise. Their boarding rate is exactly five dollars more, per day, than what we pay in Cuenca for a large, bright three bedroom, two bath, fully furnished apartment – internet included.

Somebody’s animal culture has gotten way out of whack.

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Scott Fugit retired recently to study leisure, travel writing and Ecuador. His goal is to bring real experiences and entertainment in articles relevant to expat life. He and his photographer wife Dee are Cuenca wannabes.

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