We once camped in a “secluded” park alongside a river in southern Chile. We had asked the firemen in town where a quiet place to camp was, and they directed us to this park. It was large, had lots of picnic space, and was in a pretty location next to the river. It was also where all the kids went after the sunset to make out, smoke weed, and listen to rather loud music. We hardly slept that night. I, out of fear that our tent would be run over by a car, and Dave worried that someone would try to rob our gear. Neither happened, luckily, but we were quite groggy the following morning.
But this story isn’t about the night we didn’t sleep because we camped in the teenage party spot. It’s about Peanut.
Peanut is the dog we befriended at this park. He was an orange herder of some mix with a sweet personality, who got along great with Sora. He also liked peanuts. See, I had spent a good 20 minutes a few days prior making fresh peanut butter in tiny batches in a friend’s rather weak food processor. It was really more a food chopper. But I was determined to have proper peanut butter.
I failed, however, to transport it in a container that promised not to leak. When we arrived at the campsite, I opened my food bag to find my beloved nut butter all over the contents of my bag.
I put Sora right to work on clean up duty. Peanut, who was standing by, seemed interested and so I offered him some bags doused in the stuff, and he seemed pretty happy with the treat, hence the name Peanut.
Peanut hung out with us as I cooked. He slept outside our tent all night, and didn’t make a peep. He and Sora chased one another along the shores of the river the next morning and he napped by our bikes as we packed up to leave.
And then we had to shoo him away.
I felt awful and like we were abandoning him. We had formed this bond and I had to turn my love on him and treat him like vermin. This was nearly a year ago and I still think about that dog. I wonder if he’s still there. If he’s even alive. Whether there is someone who comes to the park and feeds him. Has anyone else fallen in love with him and taken him in?
For months, Dave and I had talked about finding an animal organization to work with and raise money. Since entering the Balkans in the fall of 2015, we began to encounter street animals — both dogs and cats, that were injured, sick, starving, abandoned, and abused. Those with homes are mistreated, spend their lives outside, often tied to a post with no shelter from the elements, and receive little love. Yet somehow, they are often the most gentle, sweet, loving creatures you will ever meet.
To see why I think you should adopt a street dog, should you find a lucky candidate on your next trip, read my post that gives you ten reasons to consider adoption.
We wanted to take all of these animals, home, but couldn’t. We wanted to take all of them to the vet to get their shots, fix their breaks, and cut their nuts, but we couldn’t. We wanted to find loving homes for all of them, but we couldn’t. We faced so many barriers to helping these animals that we decided to incorporate promoting animal welfare and adoption into our mission.
While waiting for my ankle to heal in Quito, Dave began reaching out to organizations in Medellín, the city where we would be finishing the South American portion of our journey and staying for a month before flying back home to Portland.
Soon after sending off that email, Defenzoores, a group that educates the public around homeless animals, fights for their legislation, and provides assistance to animals in need, Dave received an enthusiastic positive reply from Mauricio Gomez, the executive director of the organization. We all got to work, launching Pedaling for Pooches, where Dave and I set out to raise $1,125 for the organization — $1 for every kilometer pedaled in Colombia.
We hardly had to work to raise money for this campaign. So many of you came through and contributed, pushing us past our goal, raising a total of $1,450 for Defenzoores. While this may not seem like a lot of money, Colombia is a country with generally low labor rates, and the funds are roughly equal to having a paid staff member for several months.
Defenzoores was born in 1996, when a group of students at the Universidad de Antioquia in Medellin, Colombia saw that their campus was overrun with homeless dogs and cats. The facilities noticed it as well, and in an attempt to control the animal population, began to poison the animals.
Horrified, the students stood up to the people behind these heinous acts and stepped in to stop the deaths.
After first making publicly known what was going on at the university, the students then teamed with veterinarians and began to spay and neuter the animals, significantly reducing the population. Continuing the education, they eventually formed an organized group called Defenzoores that promotes respectful coexistence with animals and their environment through awareness and education in the community.
Today, the group consists of university students, professionals, and educational centers that work with the community.
Five years later, one of the same security guards who had set out poison to kill the animals, phoned the group to alert them of a stray dog who had entered the campus, informing them that he needed to be helped.
Not always a city that adored its pets, the Medellín’s attitude towards animals has changed, many thanks to the work of organizations like Defenzoores. Perhaps their most famous and important accomplishment was in 2007, when, along with other animal rights groups and Mayor Alonso Salazar, they launched an anti-bullfighting campaign that was credited for convincing 90% of the population that bullfighting is a barbaric sport. While Colombian laws protect bullfighting as culturally important, the attendance at bullfighting shows in Medellín has dropped drastically, leaving the stadium practically empty.
A Sunday run in Cerro Volador showed me just how much Paisas, or residents of Medellín, love their animals. Nearly everyone in the park had at least one dog by their side, most had two (and not always on leash, as I complained about in a recent post chastising off-leash dogs interrupting my runs).
I noticed one very specific commonality among most of these dogs: nearly all were purebreds. In a country where so many dogs roam the streets, it was discouraging to see so many single-breed dogs. Here, purchasing a beautiful purebred dog denotes high class and is a trophy to show off each time you walk down the street. It is a status symbol. The perception of mutts is that they are stupid, dirty, and do not make good pets.
Defenzoores planned to make Sora the face of animal adoption in Medellín through several events and media engagements with the hope that by sharing our journey, Sora’s story, and showing that a once-abandoned dog can be just as smart, loving, and beautiful as a purchased dog, Paisas would shift their attitude toward the dogs they see on the street. Of course, we didn’t share these plans with Sora as she’s known to be a little nervous when she meets new people.
Sora’s stardom in Medellín commenced with a short speech in front of city council members, all of whom support legislation for animal rights. Mauricio proudly paraded Sora around the room, and later the entire floor, where she luckily behaved very well as people posed for a Sora Selfie.
The following afternoon, Mauricio picked us up and took us to TeleMedellin (head to minute 3:05 to see our clip. Sorry, it’s only available in Spanish), where the prominent news station interviewed us. I was a bit nervous doing a TV interview in Spanish, but Sora has no stage fright and performed several tricks for the camera.
And finally, our events culminated with a discussion in front of 125 people at the Universidad de Antioquía along with Mauricio, city council members, Alvaro Munera, a former bull fighter turned animals rights activist, and Ramón Acevedo, a psychiatrist, answering questions about the importance of animal adoption, the work of the city council, and inquires about our journey. We were told this was the largest audience for the themes of animals and bicycling they’ve ever seen.
Once the questioned finished, we loaded Sora with a full bag of Zuke’s pets treats to reward her for positive behavior and prepared for the Sora Selfie brigade. I requested at the end of the Q&A session that no one try to hug or kiss Sora and nearly every single person complied, much to our gratitude. Sora can be reactive to people she doesn’t know and the Paisia’s sure love to give our nervous dog hugs and kisses!
We’ve become pretty well-versed in how to introduce Sora to new people and other dogs. Check out the post I wrote offering our best tips: Introducing Your Nervous Dog to New People and Other Dogs.
For 45 minutes, Sora posed for photo after photo with new friends holding signs promoting adoption such as, “I am the voice for those who have no voice,” “adoption is an act of love,” and “adopt someone without a home.” People asked us about veganism and how we travel as vegans. They invited us to their homes. They came from far distances to see what we had to say. We felt such an abundance of love for animals in the room and such gratitude for the people of Medellín who fight for the animals.