CUSCO, Peru — One of the more unsettling surprises in a country full of surprises is the huge number of dogs wandering freely about the streets and sidewalks here.
They dodge traffic, eat garbage, and sleep in the sun beside long lines of tourists queued up for Machu Picchu. Mostly, they are ignored. Even the tourists quickly learn you can’t waste time on Peru’s perros callejeros. There’s
just too many, especially in Cusco, the beautiful, ancient city of the Inca. And so you step over them.
Street dogs don’t last long without a fine-tuned sense of the speed and trajectory of moving objects. These dogs run along and into and through Peru’s crazy traffic like trout in a stream. I never saw one even come close to being hit, although quite a few show signs of getting tossed around pretty hard.
When they aren’t lounging like lizards, Peruvian dogs dart past in a big hurry to get somewhere. That could be. In Cusco, a busy tourism capital, people come and go, and the dogs can sense when to move in for the leavings. Some have regular dinner dates. At night, a few residents and shopkeepers open the door to allow a meal and warm spot to sleep. Having a dog means different things to different people. Here, you usually have to go to the upscale districts of Lima to see anyone walking a dog on a leash.
So a dog’s life isn’t the same everywhere you go. Some clearly have it better than others. The scrappy ones get plenty of calories along with heavy pathogen exposure. Early one morning, driving through the raggedy outskirts of Cusco, we saw people tossing garbage onto a heap, turning a parking lot into a small spreading mountain. Dogs ate it up.
That’s a good gig for a Peruvian street dog. For most of the perros callejeros, daily routines can be a lot tougher.
They have to learn when the most buses are coming and going at the popular sites. That’s when the most leftovers get dropped, either on purpose or accidentally. So as the sun sets, the dogs come out, ushering visitors aboard their buses and taxis.
Locals with big hearts feel sorry for them and advocate a better solution than neglect.
“The dogs have become a big problem,” my Spanish teacher, born and raised and still living in the family home in Cusco, told us. “There are just too many. The city has a couple of programs to take care of them, but there aren’t enough resources.”
One followed us for nearly an hour, keeping her distance, apparently certain we had something for her but never pushy about it. She seemed to know better than to get aggressive about the begging. She came off as a pro — like a trained member of a canine garbage corps, deployed by a cash-strapped city to pick up after messy travelers.
We liked her regal demeanor and full coat. We talked about taking her back to San Francisco with us. Reportedly all you need to do is get a veterinary checkup and some sort of certificate.
But when we failed to drop anything, our dog just strolled to the side of the street, up a small embankment, and plopped down in front of someone’s house, as if she lived there. She had just been strolling to keep us company. Now, she was done with us, and certainly didn’t need our help.
Carl T. Hall, executive officer of the Pacific Media Workers Guild, is a longtime journalist and union organizer in San Francisco’s Bayview neighborhood, where he will soon be opening a dog-friendly coffee shop, Word A Cafe, on Third Street.
Main article photo by: Carl T. Hall