We hadn't been in Buenos Aires a day before we noticed the dogs. In a 20-minute walk from our hotel, we saw many dogs wandering the busy streets, no owners in sight. Most of the dogs had that “lost” look: emaciated, cowering, skittish, their fur matted. They were sad to see.
Buenos Aires is a city of apartments and few parks, so stray dogs live on the sidewalks, sleep in doorways, beg or rummage through trash cans. On a residential street in the Palermo neighborhood, a beautiful but bedraggled Golden Retriever limped along, looking up at pedestrians, pleading for food.
It wasn’t as though people in Buenos Aires didn’t have dogs, however. In the Recoleta, a wealthy neighborhood, well dressed women walked little white dogs, and in the nearby park, a dog walker wrangled his 15 leashed charges.
Yet, stray dogs were everywhere, even in the new business district near the harbor’s edge. They tailed lanyard-wearing office workers, watched them eat lunch at outdoor restaurants, waited for leftovers. Even at the port, chaotic with trucks hauling containers, a little rough-coated terrier type begged for scraps from workers’ lunches.
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Buenos Aires wasn’t the only city in Argentina with a stray dog problem. Twelve hundred miles south in Ushuaia, the country’s southernmost city, a pathetically thin Lab followed us for a block, begging for food.
It was the same sad story 1,800 miles north, in tropical Iguazu. Dogs slept on sidewalks and under tables in empty outdoor restaurants. A curly-haired puppy barked for our attention. We gave him half an ice cream cone, not something we’d feed our own dog back home.
We asked hotel desk clerks about these dogs. Most of them sighed, and one shrugged her shoulders, as if to say, What can we do? From what we learned, many, many intact dogs roam Argentinian cities, and those who rescue and alter these strays face daunting odds.
But then we discovered the dogs of El Calafate. This small Patagonian town is as much a dog park as it is a tourist destination for visitors to Los Glaciares National Park. We spotted the dogs before we got off the hotel bus. They were hanging out on the main street like a bunch of teenagers, lounging on the grass in a small park, chasing each other, wrestling, sleeping and cadging food from tourists.
They weren’t wary of people and they didn’t have that “lost dog” look. Just the opposite, in fact. These dogs appeared confident, looked well fed and most weren’t skittish. Some were even friendly. They were everywhere, ambling down the busy main street, weaving their way among the tourists, sniffing out canine news, and of course, looking for food.
The dogs slept everywhere too, plopping down in shop doorways, on the steps of the casino, at the entrances to hotels. Most were well behaved; for example, four of them lay outside a supermarket’s front door but didn’t go in.
We asked everyone about the dogs and always got the same answer: the town owns them—takes care of them, too, even pays their vet bills. What we thought were strays turned out to be canine citizens. But perhaps the dogs of El Calafate were what dogs have always been, a species that has lived with people for thousands of years, domesticated, comfortable, but not always pets. They had their packs, just as we have our families.
In neighborhoods far from the main street, we saw dogs playing together in open fields, a few napping next to one another in the middle of dirt roads; we were surprised to see a driver maneuver around a sleeping dog rather than bully him out of the way.
What we didn’t see were people out walking dogs. The dogs in El Calafate walked themselves. They also hunted for their own food. A waiter told us that dogs adopt restaurants in El Calafate, inverting the idea that we adopt dogs. He pointed to a black-and-white dog who slept at the kitchen’s door. “That dog always comes by around dinnertime,” the waiter said. “The chef feeds him.”
So we began feeding the dogs too, and were surprised at how picky they could be. One dog turned up his nose at rice and cheese, though he wolfed down a piece of steak. Then he trotted off, unbeholden to us. The dogs of El Calafate were loyal to the town, but not necessarily to the hands that fed them. Planeloads of tourists arrived daily, swelling the resident population of 20,000 by as much as ten times. That could only mean more leftovers.
These dogs were also the antithesis of what the phrase “pack of dogs” usually implies. They were friendly, playful and very good beggars. But then, El Calafate is a unique small town in a remote part of the Argentine. Not many years ago, it was a dusty rest stop for ranchers driving their sheep to the port at Rio Gallegos. When good two-lane roads opened up Los Glaciares National Park, tourists flocked to El Calafate, the nearest town. Perhaps the dogs who now feast on tourists’ left-overs are descended from the sheep dogs who worked here in times past.
Most of the dogs of El Calafate are good-sized, 40 to 50 pounds and at least two feet at the shoulder. Little dogs can’t compete in these packs, and the only sad-eyed dog we saw was small and alone, a true stray.
The dogs are part of El Calafate’s charm. One afternoon, we watched eight or nine go barreling down the main street, scooting around tourists, dodging cars, running f lat out. I grabbed my wife’s arm, afraid we’d hear that terrible thud of metal hitting a furry body, then dying yelps. But the dogs swerved in time and their chase continued, leaving us with stories to tell. The dogs of El Calafate gave us a glimpse of another time, when packs of dogs lived happily among us.
As we were leaving our hotel for the airport, we gave the dogs who slept at the entrance slices of ham from the buffet. They gulped them down in a blink and went back to sleep. Then we climbed on the airport bus and took one last look around.
Many people had told us that the dogs weren’t strays. Now, we understood. A dog without a pack, either canine or human, was lost indeed. But the dogs of El Calafate have the frisky exuberance of happy dogs, and happiness is always good for tourists.