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Emotional Rescue: Saving the Lost Dogs on the streets of Santiago 

For better or worse, "Leap and the net will appear" is an adage I can live by naturally. Most recently, this took me to Chile

click to enlarge lostdogs.jpg
For better or worse, "Leap and the net will appear" is an adage I can live by naturally. Most recently, this took me to Chile with the intention of making a film about homeless dogs.

My inspiration for "Lost Dogs" came from a YouTube video that shows a dog on a busy Santiago highway as he risks his life to save another injured canine. The clip prompted my research into the estimated 250,000 dogs that live on the streets of Chile's capital city.

Once I had my concept - to look for the "hero dog" and while I was at it, film his 250,000 friends - it wasn't long before I took the plunge, arriving in Santiago with my Spanish vocabulary of five words, video and stills cameras, tripod, 50 hours of tape and clothes for any eventuality over the next two months. A couple of days behind me was Chris Mortimer, a photographer introduced to me only two weeks prior as someone crazy enough to accompany me.

The street dogs were fascinating - acquiescent, playful, savvy and wise. Their environment is cars, concrete, trash and people. It's a hard life that averages only five years. Handouts supplement the food the dogs find in dumpsters and gutters but for the most part, the conditioned human response is to look right through them, step around them, don't touch them.

For a city of seven million people, Santiago is kept remarkably clean. Occasionally a municipality's methodology for keeping it that way will include destroying street dogs by the cheapest method available: strychnine. Outraged citizens have witnessed poisoned animals writhing in muscular convulsions until the ultimate, gruesome death by asphyxiation. Public protest delays the next slaughter but inevitably and without warning it happens again.

On the city's outskirts, strays negotiated thorns, rubble and barbed wire to greet us. Bringing them food and water were the martyrs who expressed feelings of "impotence" and "powerlessness" at the same time as they were up to their elbows in combating the worst of animal suffering. The grace and selflessness with which these people approached their mission was a profound inspiration.

Six weeks into the trip, Chris went into the wilderness while I headed south for Chaitén, a town transformed on May 2, 2008 when a nearby volcano erupted for the first time since about 7400 BC. As during Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, people were evacuated and ordered by the government to abandon their pets. Public protest pressured the Chilean army to free cats and dogs locked in houses until animal welfare groups could coordinate to capture and evacuate the survivors.

My decision to join the last rescue effort in Chaitén was in part to expose a recurring global issue - environmental disasters are on the increase and protocol for animals should be set by more than just pen-pushing bureaucrats. It's easy to play God from the confines of an office, without ever looking into the faces of the victims. "Not one life was lost as a result of Volcán Chaitén," yet thousands of domestic animals were left to fight flooding, contaminated water, toxic ash, freezing temperatures, starvation, cannibalism and epidemics of distemper and parvovirus.

As a result of severe limitations in finances, resources and manpower, we managed to rescue only about thirty percent of the remaining dogs. The day after their evacuation to Puerto Montt by ferry, I had one day to get myself to Santiago for my flight home.

Leaving the dogs behind in an unfinished and at times messy campaign was enormously painful, but my two months were up. My camera had lost every microphone connection, my lenses were scratched, my budget dried up, my clothes were filthy after two weeks in a cabin with 13 sick animals and no running water, and my knees had given way after hundreds of squats to film at dogs' eye level. I was mentally, emotionally and physically raw coming back to Bend.

Suddenly a void surrounded me where loving and affectionate dogs had been. News would come in about more poisonings, cars killing the dogs I knew, and always lingering in my mind was the grim reality of the Chaitén dogs in confinement. The plan was to fly them to Santiago for the possibility of adoption, but adoption where? Welcome to the rest of your life on a chain in sensory deprivation looking at a patch of sky and walls?

It didn't help that one dog in particular had stolen my heart - a four-month old puppy we had to capture twice after I accidentally let her escape. Her mother and all her littermates were dead; she had never had human contact and was terrified of people. I waivered, sometimes convinced I had to do everything possible to save her; other times swayed by those who said the film is more important than individual dogs.

A conversation with the director of the Pixie Project, an adoption facility in Portland, changed everything when they agreed to adopt out three Chilean dogs. I blogged and posted and emailed for a volunteer courier but came up empty. Back on the edge, ready to take another leap, I told myself the money surely would come from somewhere.

I pleaded with LAN airlines to double their maximum number of dogs per passenger from four to eight. Before long I was headed back to South America, back into the maze of Santiago in winter.

Ultimately seven dogs would be brought back to the US, along with their unique tales that make up the finale of "Lost Dogs." Five have already been adopted and there is talk of turning the three-legged survivor of the Chaitén disaster into a therapy dog for disabled children.

The intensity of a happy ending correlates directly with the trial of getting there.

Editor's note: the filmmaker will premiere her work at an upcoming event in Bend that will serve as a fundraiser for her rescue efforts. The evening includes food, drinks, dancing and a silent auction.

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