I don't have any pets myself, but have no problem with people who do. Wild animals live right up my street and I love watching them. Stray animals, on the other hand, do nothing for me. The thought of abandoned animals does tug at the heart strings and I have always been a supporter of 'a dog is for life and not just for Christmas' but I have never been one of those people on holiday who will pet the closest stray, even kiss it.
To my dismay, stray animals seem to have become part of the travelling experience, especially when settling down for an evening meal. Dogs in Thailand, cats in Greece, I was even plagued by cats when I was camping in the Saharan desert. But in Cusco, home of ancient Incas and jumping off point for Machu Picchu and and the Inca Trail, for some reason, the last thing I expected to come across was stray animals.
They are everywhere. Dogs, that is. They wander the streets in small groups, remarkably well kept, but they are ever-present, sniffing around doors and walking alongside you. And these are not mangy, flee-ridden hounds, nor are they mal-nourished, just there, everywhere. And as you drive along the streets and see them mating, a little imagination and a sci-fi scenario starts, never mind planet of the apes, these canines are surely set to take over.
One evening, as I sat down for dinner in a restaurant, I noticed that the door had been left slightly ajar. Whilst the waitress was preparing drinks behind the bar, a dog sneaked in and sniffed around the tables looking for scraps. A German couple in the corner smiled at their new four legged friend and offered him food tidbits from their plate. The dog ate greedily and then disappeared out of the restaurant. The couple continued their meal and my jaw dropped to the floor. Surely if a stray dog came into an eating establishment in their own country they wouldn't encourage it to the table and offer it food? (And surely if they did, they would wash their hands before continuing to eat? But we won't dwell on that one)
So, the next day, when Juan Carlos, our rafting guide, asked me how I was enjoying Cusco, I was quite honest when I admitted to him that I had quite fallen in love with the city, could even live there, if it wasn't for the dogs on every street corner. Somehow, I said, they made me feel uneasy. He laughed and agreed with me. So why, I tried to ask delicately, does the city not act? Surely there must be a way to maintain control? He laughed again. No way, he replied, the tourists love them. They feed the dogs and so the dogs stay. We can do nothing about it.
I am sure, that the lack of action is not just down to pleasing tourists, but it is more the fear of what will happen if they do act. Imagine the outrage from animal activists if there was suddenly to be a dramatic cull of dogs in Cusco. It would surely make international news or become a cause celebre on Twitter or Facebook and the town of Cusco, which relies on tourism as 90% of its economy, just can't risk ruining its reputation.
The hard truth is that no matter how much you like dogs, stray animals do spread disease and as such are a hazard to the local population. I am not supporting a cause to suddenly eradicate all dogs from Peru, but what I do plead, is that travelers exercise some common sense. Don't feed stray animals and don't encourage them into restaurants or hostels, you will only stay for a few days, but your actions can inadvertently exacerbate the problem.