I had some time on my hands as I walked alone on a back street of Cotacachi, Ecuador on a cloudy warm afternoon in February. I was intent on finding a bank to get some dinero before my impromptu dinner engagement later on this evening.
A small emaciated dog was eyeing me as I briskly walked along the cobbled street. I stopped and he stopped, too, but only to mimic my action, I thought. Starting up again, he did, too. Finally, our routine was interrupted by a noisy motorbike that creased our cadence and my pedestrian friend scrambled for safety and was gone. I looked for my small friend but he had vanished into the darkness of a nearby alley off to find a new source of comfort and food. My distraction gone, I felt I had to get back to my task of finding a bank and so I continued on.
Earlier that day, I had met Lee and Peggy Carper from Canton, North Carolina at breakfast. They have been living here for the last three years caring for stray and abandoned dogs that populate the High Sierras of the Andes. They told me of their mission to spay and neuter the strays as well as to nurse and feed the ones who showed malnutrition or disease. From what I've seen, the streets were filled with malnourished and possibly diseased dogs. As is typical of the Ecuadorean culture, dogs are treated as free and independent companions to their human partners and not want of any special attention lest they be regarded as special and out of character for their station in life. I asked them how they supported their cause and Lee shrugged and said, "We go through three kilos of dog meal each day as well as ask around to various restaurants and cafes for scraps of food that they would ordinarily throw out. It's a struggle."
"But what about monetary offerings?" I asked.
Peggy chimed in, "We write to friends Stateside as well as spread the word to those expats who live in the area for anything that they can provide. Many of the locals know what we do and provide us with essential assistance, which is great. A local vet helps in the spaying and neutering, too, sometimes at little or no cost."
I thought of Lee and Peggy as I crossed a street where a woman was sitting on a planter in front of a small mercado (market). She looked up at me and waved for my attention. I turned and she asked, "Do you speak English?"
I turned and called back, "How could you tell?" She laughed and as I approached her said that I looked like an American (was it the jeans and ballcap I was wearing that gave me away?) and she needed to talk to someone in her native tongue. I stopped and sat down beside her and listened to her story.
She was a nurse who had just arrived from an 8-month stint nursing the disabled and homeless in Haiti. She was in Cotacachi for a few days to care for the indigent poor who needed some medical attention until a doctor could be found to replace the one that had recently died. How she found out about this matter I didn't ask but she seemed quite attuned to such things. Meanwhile, her mission was diverted to caring for the scrawny four-legged inhabitants of the village that were seen everywhere. She asked me if I knew a dog whisperer named Peggy that she had heard of in her travels here in the High Sierras. What a coincidence, I thought. I told her of a brief encounter I had this very morning with a local American couple, one whose name was Peggy, who had been living here for the last three years who cared for the strays that wandered the streets and alleyways of Cotacachi. She seemed very excited that I knew of this person and asked if I could be assistance to her in tracking them down. I was impressed with her missionary zeal so much that I was willing to collaborate and participate in it as well. I said, "Sure, I'll take you to her."
She got up and gave the last of her bag of dog food to her two scrawny friends that lay at her feet. Their teeth were ground down to stubs from digging for scraps and throwaways that littered the ancient stone back streets of town. Many were malnourished because so much damage was done to their teeth and digestive system by their nocturnal forages for decayed and spoiled food.
We were on our way down Calle Sucre to the direction of the church in the center of this small village where I stayed and knew that Peggy and her husband Lee lived nearby in a small apartment with a sprawling courtyard where they cared for their homeless, canine friends.
We came to the street where Peggy and Lee lived and went to their door. I pushed a button on the wall next to the door and looked up to an open window that apparently was the apartment of the dog whisperer known as Peggy. I tried again but Peggy didn't respond or perhaps she was out amongst her four-legged clientele in search of providing assistance. Just then, I turned and saw that Lee was approaching us from up the street.
I waved and he recognized me and did the same and came to us at the door. I introduced him to Deborah who had accompanied me here and Deborah began to tell her story to Lee who showed great interest in her mission.
After a few minutes he reached for his cell phone and called up to Peggy who was actually at home. She met us at the door a few minutes later and Deborah told them of her current mission and her willingness to find them funding for their efforts. Lee showed genuine astonishment as he gleefully listened further to what she wanted to do to help them with caring for the stray dogs of Cotacachi. Having completed my task I bade them all a farewell and turned to return to my original objective to find a bank.
As I walked down the street I noticed a few scrawny strays were making their way directly to Lee and Peg without showing the least bit of curiosity to me and what I could afford them. I wasn't a dog whisperer, I discovered, so I gave them wide berth for them to make their way to those who are. I turned to see that Lee knew his compatriots and greeted them like old friends who he missed seeing lately. As I continued on my way, I found myself wondering how many of these strays would live or die or have the fortunate experience of being discovered by the dog whisperers of Cotacachi.
Lee and Peggy Carper in Cotacachi, Ecuador have done so much to care for those four-legged creatures. In spite of the dogs' tortuous hardships trying to survive, they are still able to give us unconditional love. I am grateful to the virtue in mankind to recognize that we are all creatures adrift in this life's journey, whether human or canine. I recall the choice quotation of Joyce Carol Oates who wrote, "It's where we go and what we do when we get there, that tells us who we are." I am fortunate to have found two caring souls who have shown me who they are and what is truly important for them when they arrived.
Lee and Peggy would appreciate any and all assistance in their mission to care for the diseased and malnourished dogs of the High Sierras in Cotacachi, Ecuador. If you wish to help the Dog Whisperers of Cotacachi please mail your contributions to Lee & Peggy Carper, P.O. Box 10-02-33, Otavalo, Imbabura, Ecuador or email your intentions or questions to either [email protected] or [email protected] where they will provide you with further information on how to assist them in their mission on behalf of their four-legged friends in Cotacachi.