A long way from the viral videos of shelter dogs used to collect tennis balls at the Brazil open, or mixed breed puppies surreptitiously placed in urban pet stores, are individuals working tirelessly and quietly to provide care for the vira latas (mixed breed dogs that live on the streets) of Brazil. One such person, Sergio Daflon Monnerat, works to fill a void left by local and national policy that favors sporadic extermination.
The Complicated Relationship With Street Dogs
There is a story told in the town of Cordeiro, Brazil, about a particular vira lata dog — a completely black dog with a single, vivid, white spot on his tail. The dog was well-known in the town and frequented especially a nearby shop. The shop owner noticed that the dog seemed to always be chasing the white spot on his tail and became convinced that the dog was chasing it because he didn’t recognize it as part of his own body. In order to help the dog, the shop owner decided to paint over the spot on the dog’s tail — black to match the rest of him.
Like the vira lata in the story, Cordeiro’s relationship with stray dogs is undergoing an identity crisis. While dogs as pets are popular (and becoming more so) in Brazil, and there is a lot of goodwill towards dogs and domestic animals as well as towards environmental causes and habitat preservation for wild animals, dogs, left to breed unchecked, roam the streets of many cities and towns uncared for.
In Cordeiro, a town tucked into the mountains of the state of Rio de Janeiro and known for hosting the annual state fair (exposição agropecuária), is long accustomed to the dogs living on its streets — they are a part of life. Some dogs have names and collars, quasi-owned either by a neighborhood or by an individual. Others are outcast, living in the forest and the park, taking advantage of cooler spaces and rummaging through trash under the cover of darkness.
If one walks through the streets at night, one sees makeshift beds and old ice-cream containers filled with fresh water and dog food. Still, despite the relationship that the city has with its dogs, they are not vaccinated or spayed/neutered and are subject to suffering from disease or injury from cars and people. Dining on the patio of a local restaurant runs the risk of being befriended by a vira lata looking for food and, it seems, attention.
Stepping in Where Social Policy Fails
Despite the evidence of goodwill, the only official policy to address the situation of vira latas that Cordeiro and neighboring cities have is to euthanize them. And without a culture of pet guardianship that encourages the spaying and neutering of pet dogs and street dogs alike, many unwanted litters create new generations of vira latas.
However, public outcry against the cruelty of euthanization means that it rarely happens unless there is a complaint against a particular dog. But the affection and care for the vira latas is, mostly, sentimental and tends to stop there. Dogs are not euthanized, but neither are they cared for. Their intense reliance on humans means both that the street dogs are especially vulnerable to suffering. Most dogs just don’t do very well living on their own on the streets.
Filling the gap in the areas around Cordeiro is Sergio Daflon Monnerat, who has set up a non-profit for the rescue and care of animals taken off the streets. Cantinho da Ritinha (which translates roughly to “Little Rita’s Place” for the good-natured characters in residence) is located on a rural farm, down several dirt roads. Benefactors have allowed Monnerat to use the farm space, and he built the pens and shelters that house the dogs from raw materials — hauling tree trunks up the mountains on his back.
Sergio Daflon Monnerat, on the farm in rural Brazil where he keeps several rescued vira-lata dogs.
Monnerat has always loved animals, having taken in several off the streets as pets over the years before beginning Cantinho da Ritinha. He says that the joy and gratitude of the dogs that he takes in is tangible. Once, he took in a dog he found that seemed to be starving to death — the skin was loose and the bones were visible. The dog almost certainly would have died without him and Monnerat secured her care that involved removal of parts of her intestine. Today the dog is thriving. Monnerat’s organization, despite its lack of abundant resources, cares for dogs that are old and young, sick and well, and rejects no comers.
Monnerat with Ana, a dog rescued when dying of an intestinal disease and that had part of her intestine removed, is healthy today.
The luckiest of Cordeiro’s dogs wind up on the farm that Monnerat uses to shelter the dogs. A sprawling property, Monnerat has fenced in areas for dogs, while some of them roam the property. He has worked with local veterinarians and pharmaceutical companies, to get free or discounted services and vaccinations for the dogs, and feeds them with money from raffles and other fund-raising initiatives on top of what he adds from his own modest earnings.
A dog that lives at Cantinho da Ritinha. She cannot walk and is blind, so Monnerat must physically lift her to eat.
He would like to do more, but “there isn’t a lot of love” for them here, says Monnerat, in reference to the lack of long-term and sustained options for the animals.
Abandoned puppies found on the roadside are greeted by one of the long-time Cantinho da Ritinha residents. Monnerat thinks that, although there are puppies who need adoption, there are lots of adult dogs who make excellent adoption candidates.
The Beginnings of a Movement
In Brazil, there is the beginnings of a grassroots movement to save the vira latas. In no small part and across the country, individuals — who often don’t have time to create pet adoption networks or to solicit outside support — are working tirelessly and independently, doing much of the heavy lifting to prevent cruelty to animals. Using their own time, money, and sweat, they have organized ad hoc animal shelters that take in dogs found on the streets, feed them, vaccinate them, and give them a safe space to live that is free from the dangers of starvation, cars, the elements, and, sometimes, cruel humans.
But because adoption of shelter dogs has not yet caught on in Brazil, as it has in countries like the United States, many of these dogs will remain at shelters for the rest of their lives. This means that new space in shelters is hard to come by, and the efforts of these determined individuals becomes difficult to sustain over time. Nevertheless, the need is pressing, and the hard work continues. For Monnerat and others, who labor every day to move the cause forward, this is a life’s work.
To support Cantinha da Ritinha’s mission, you can donate on their fundrazr page. Currently, they are working to build a mobile clinic that offers spay/neutering services for a free or reduced costs to Cordeiro and surrounding areas.
All image source: Lisa Lucille Owens