Brazil’s love for its animals is the stuff of literary legend. But its current relationship with suffering of its huge stray population, as well as its pets, is much more complicated, and often heart-breaking.
By James Young
“There was only one condition stated in the will and that was that the heir, Rubião, keep the poor dog, Quincas Borba, whose master had given him his own name because of the great love that he bore him…He was to deny him nothing that might be for his good; he was to see that he did not run away, and he was to protect him from sickness, theft and death, which persons of evil intent might seek to inflict upon him. In short, he was to treat him as if he were not a dog, but a human being” – Quincas Borba (or Philosopher or Dog? in its English title) by Machado de Assis.
Unfortunately things do not end well in Machado de Assis’s novel for either Quincas Borba the philosopher, who “turns up his toes” at the beginning of the book, or Quincas Borba the dog, who “fell sick, whimpered endlessly, and ran about in frenzied search of his master” before being “found dead in the street” at its end.
The fate of Quincas Borba the dog will strike a chord with many of Brazil’s canine population. While exact numbers are hard to pin down, estimates suggest that there are hundreds of thousands of stray dogs in the country, with one report even suggesting there may be as many as 30 million abandoned dogs and cats. And until recently, the treatment of such animals by local councils could be far from humane.
“Until seven years ago or so, the city council would round up the stray dogs that it found and kill them in gas chambers. It took 15 minutes for the dogs to die,” says Cristiano Mendes, director of the Sexta-Feira (“Friday”) NGO in Brazil’s third biggest city, Belo Horizonte, where the council estimates there are around 30,000 stray cats and dogs. “But things have improved. Now they check if a dog has Leishmaniasis. If it does, it will have to be put down, though at least it’s done by lethal injection now. If it’s healthy, it’s neutered, vaccinated and given to the “Adopt a Friend” fair so it can find a new home.”
Mendes’ group organizes the “Adopt a Friend” fairs, an example of the dozens of similar animal adoption events that have sprung up in Brazilian cities in recent years. The NGO also works with local schools to teach children how to look after their pets.
“We started out by trying to fund homes for as many stray dogs as we could,” he says. “But we soon realized it was an impossible task. We had to tackle the problem at its roots. We discovered that most stray dogs come from poorer neighbourhoods, where people are reluctant to have their dogs neutered, because they think it’s too expensive, or the dog will suffer. Also, Brazil is a very macho, male-dominated society. Some people think there’s something wrong with getting their dog neutered. But then the puppies arrive, and they don’t want them.” In fact, Belo Horizonte city council, like others in Brazil, offers a free cat and dog neutering service.
As well as the risk of being abandoned in the street, another danger Brazil’s canine population faces is that of cruelty and maltreatment at home. “I’ve heard of cases where people have poisoned or beaten their pets, or even poured hot oil on them,” says Mendes. “It’s part of our consumer culture – the dog is an object, it’s mine and I can do what I want to it.” The situation may soon improve, with a new law recently being passed by Congress protecting the rights of cats and dogs, and imposing prison sentences, rather than fines, as penalties. Anyone who unlawfully kills a cat or a dog will face between one and three years in prison.
“It’s been proven that people who beat animals are more likely to harm people. There is a correlation,” said the author of the bill, Congressman Ricardo Tripoli, referring to studies such as this, from the animal protection organization PETA.
Dogs play an important part in the language and culture of Brazil, from the aforementioned Quincas Borba, to Baleia, the much-loved dog that appears in Graciliano Ramos’s tale of hardship in the north-eastern sertão (“drylands”), Vidas Secas (“Barren Lives” to use its English title). And an auburn Basset hound makes an appearance in the story “Temptation” by the Ukrainian born, naturalized Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector.
The most famous Brazil-–dogs connection, however, was penned by the dramatist and sportswriter Nelson Rodrigues, who coined the phrase “complexo de vira-lata” to describe the country’s voluntary inferiority complex on a global scale. Although “vira-lata” literally means “knock over the can or bin”, a reference to a street dog searching for food, the expression is translated both as “stray dog complex” and “mongrel complex”.
The latter, however, is perhaps closer to Rodrigues’ meaning, given the links between such an inferiority complex and the historical (and crack-pot) fears of some sections of Brazilian society that their country’s failings were caused by the miscegenation which has so shaped its modern profile. “Centuries of indiscriminate couplings had produced a people of bastard voluptuaries. If the positivists and the social Darwinists were right, and the founders of the republic of Brazil were convinced they were, Brazil was doomed to underdevelopment because so many Brazilians were inferior material,” writes Peter Robb in his book on Brazilian history and culture, Death In Brazil.
Rodrigues used the phrase to describe the feeling of desolation that followed the deciding game of the 1950 World Cup, when Brazil, the hot favourite, was humbled at the Maracanã by Uruguay. “By complexo de vira-lata, I mean the inferiority complex which Brazil adopts when faced with the rest of the world,” he explained.
The complexo de vira-lata also provides a useful tool for explaining some of the prejudices that underpin modern Brazilian society, where many people turn their noses up at owning mongrels and instead pay thousands of reais for pedigree Pekingeses or Shih Tzus. Such was the prevalence of the latter breed at the recent anti-government rallies in Belo Horizonte, populated largely by better-off Brazilians, that it was tempting to tag the demonstrations with the moniker “the Shih Tzu Spring”. The country’s poorer neighbourhoods, meanwhile, are largely populated by vira-latas.
“We tell the children that prejudice against vira-latas is just another form of racism,” says Mendes, talking about the educational visits his group makes to public schools in Belo Horizonte. Although his project is growing, it still faces challenges. “Lots of people still don’t see animal welfare as important. It’s a common argument in the developing world. They say “there are people starving in Brazil, why should we worry about dogs?” I tell them they should worry about both,” he says.