In October 2006, during a conference titled El lejano país de Rufino José Cuervo (“The Distant Country of Rufino Jose Cuervo”), internationally acclaimed filmmaker and writer Fernando Vallejo entered the auditorium of the Modern Gymnasium of Bogota, Colombia. Accompanied by 15 dogs, he went to the podium and launched into an attack on Colombia’s politicians, notably Beatriz Londoño, Bogota’s former Secretary of Health, who had ordered the electrocution of 400 dogs in order to “clean” the streets of that city.He reminded his listeners that, while he was aware that the general public was suffering economically, he was particularly concerned about the welfare of Colombia’s abandoned animals.
Outspoken and controversial, Vallejo came to worldwide attention in 2003 after winning the Rómulo Gallegos International Novel Prize for his work El desbarrancadero (The Precipice), joining a list of notables that includes Gabriel García Márquez and Mario Vargas Llosa. The prize, which was created in 1964 as a tribute to the late Venezuelan writer and politician, comes with an award of $100,000, and this provided Vallejo with the means to embark on a remarkable campaign.
“Animals, who are our partners in the painful adventure of life inside this crazy planet that spins without any rhythm and on to nowhere, are our fellow creatures, and they deserve our respect and compassion,” said Vallejo at his acceptance speech in Caracas.
Vallejo, who now lives in Mexico with Kim and Kina, two of his adopted dogs, is no stranger to animal crusades. For the past 20 years, he has helped support the Medellin Society for the Protection of Animals (SPA), which is run by his brother Anibal and sister-in-law Nora, and has also expressed the desire that upon his death, his royalties and wealth be used to rescue stray dogs from the streets of Colombia. In addition to opposing governmental animal cruelty, the SPA also sponsors the Board of Defense for Animals and an Ethics Committee that monitors the use of animals in medical research throughout Colombia.
With the Gallegos prize money in hand,Vallejo quickly demonstrated how far respect and compassion could go. Assisted by his brother and sister-in-law, he set out to find a pro-animal organization in Venezuela—Rómulo Gallegos’ native land—that would most benefit from his financial assistance. Several groups applied, but in the end, the award money went to Fundación Mil Patitas (1,000 Paws Foundation), an animal shelter housing 140 dogs and 110 cats, all of which had been saved from Venezuela’s hectic streets.
A Harsh Reality
InVenezuela, as in neighboring Colombia, animal welfare issues often take a backseat to economic, political and social problems. The evidence of this is everywhere. Stray dogs and malnourished cats are considered to be somebody else’s problem. Dead dogs are a regular sight along the country’s highways, and, abetted by governmental indifference, puppy market vendorsflourish.Although domestic dogs are quite popular in both rural and urban Venezuela, it is also true that many of them are considered to be guards rather than companions.
Vallejo’s remarkable donation brought visibility to groups of Venezuelan professionals and trained volunteers who are working to change their fellow citizens’ perception of animals.Among these caring people was Fiorella Dubbini, originally from Italy, and founder and operator of Fundación Mil Patitas.
When the donation was announced in 2003,Dubbini made headlines, which proved to be something of a mixed blessing— as her work became more widely known, she received an increasing number of requests for help.Today,Dubbini’s facility shelters 400 dogs and in excess of 200 cats. Set on a wide lot in Los Teques, a mountainous area about half an hour from Caracas, the shelter is surrounded by an impoverished neighborhood. In caring for, feeding and providing veterinary care for animals in need, Dubbini has both adapted to the Venezuelan spurof- the-moment lifestyle and managed to give a better life to hundreds of forgotten animals.
“In Venezuela, I think that there is a lack of conscience towards animal care,” Dubbini observes. “I have been working full-time on this issue since 2002, providing food and refuge for the animals that I pick up on the streets, and I have experienced the good and bad of this society. Stray dogs are last on the list because there are so many other problems in the national system.”
This Italian angel for lost animals recalls that when she was in Milan, there were at least five women who did what she currently does in Los Teques, and later, when she lived in New York and worked in a restaurant, she would take her dog with her and nobody minded.
“You do not see this type of behavior in Venezuela,” she says.“Of course, there are people here who love dogs and cats, but when it comes to taking care of stray animals, most of them just shrug their shoulders and do nothing.”
Since 2002, Dubbini has used her savings to support both herself and Fundación Mil Patita. The shelter’s financial needs—feeding and caring for hundreds of animals and paying the salaries of her small staff—rapidly consumed Vallejo’s generous gift. However difficult it might seem, though, Dubbini continues to look after the shelter’s animals as well as any others she encounters.
Part of the Solution
Sol Martinez, leader of Red de Apoyo Canino (Canine Support Network), which coordinates animal adoptions and raises the visibility of active humane organizations and shelters, is another uncommon individual, as are Oswaldo Rojas and Maria Arteaga, founders of the Foundation of Friends for the Protection of Animals (FAMPROA), an animal charity working in Caracas and Los Teques.
According to Martinez, the demands that most of these animal activists face on a daily basis are formidable.“It is tough, because they do not receive government aid and because many Venezuelans are not aware of how they can help,” she explains. “Maria can get a call any day of the week to go to a municipality in Caracas and pick up five abandoned puppies, but she rarely gets calls to pick up two bags of dog food or a small financial donation.”
Rojas and Arteaga, who were among the candidates for Vallejo’s prize money, were happy for Dubbini when it was announced that her shelter would receive the grant.
“She truly is an amazing and admirable woman,” says Arteaga.“Some people might view her as bossy because she is so serious about what she does. But the truth is that you have to value Fiorella, because she really has put herself in such a demanding position.”
Each day, Dubbini, Rojas,Arteaga and others work to make a difference in the lives of Venezuela’s abandoned animals. The memory of Vallejo’s gesture motivates them to continue despite the unwillingness of the local government to support them and the indifference of the majority of Venezuelans to their efforts.
“We continue to try to sensitize Venezuelans,” says Rojas. “Through the media,we have begun offering information on the latest dogs we have picked up and we have also begun to organize public forums to discuss this issue.Abandoned- animal adoption is a multifaceted problem, because most people want animals of rare breeds, and they do not grasp that these lost animals have the same characteristics and, sometimes, are even more loving. Still, our love for these animals motivates us to continue our efforts to educate Venezuelans.” A sentiment that Fernando Vallejo would no doubt endorse.