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Mi Conchita, Feb 2007 (First meeting and rescue)

     We first encountered the mucky off-white dog hanging around outside a well lit government building, on a Cuban side street. She was timid and on first encounter ran away. But when she realized I had no intention of abusing her she gradually came closer and allowed me to stroke her.

The friendship was sealed when she flipped onto her back and permitted a tickle on her tummy—A tummy, I was to learn later, filled with pups.

      My friends Nini and Motti reminded me that it was getting late and we needed to leave. The dog was soaking up some well needed affection. I pulled away reluctantly as we sped away. My eyes welled up with tears as I sensed that her deep brown eyes were fixated on us as we kept on walking.

      Several months ago we had planned this trip. The Santiago synagogue seemed like an excellent choice to volunteer our time. We had come equipped with medical supplies, Hebrew books for teaching, a guitar and tape deck for music gatherings. We were prepared to offer as many skills as we could but we werenít prepared for the enormous number of stray pets left to roam the streets.

      It became a nightly routine to visit her and we came laden with our breakfast leftovers . She recognized us and would come running to greet us with enthusiastic tail wagging. She would discard the bread and gobble the egg and cheese.

      We learned from the guards in the government building that her name was Conchita. She was an assortment of breeds, the most dominant by far, was the Australian collie mixed with some black dalmation spots. Her eyes were warm enough to soften the heart of the toughest gang member.

      By the second week in Santiago, we discovered the shops and overpriced supermarket and I became a regular shopper, purchasing hot dogs for the soon to be mother and any other dog who crossed our paths.

      Like thousands of street dogs, it was clear that Conchita was unfed and undernourished. She would try very gently to grab an entire hot dog without giving me the chance to break it up. She gulped it down whole, often with no chewing.

      I repeatedly requested that the guards bring her some water which she lapped up noisily.
      Conchita was sweet natured and easily trainable and I had the impression that it may have broken a local Cuban's heart to release her to the hot and smoky streets of Santiago.

      Various guards came and went from their shifts and all seemed amused that I would feed a luxury item to a dog. Our time here was coming to an end and Conchita was the only unfinished business I needed to accomplish. There were thousands more dogs and cats, all desperate, and steadily starving to death. Conchita was just another animal scrounger in most locals' eyes and a soon to be mother, whose pups would most likely be destroyed by the government, if not by nature.

      However, if I could save one life, Conchita deserved it, and I'd personally feel a small victory like I'd felt so many times in the past. Dog rescues were not new to me. I was determined.

      I tossed and turned in the night . Only 2 nights away from our departure and the options were limited.

      I had a rough plan. As morning services were winding down, I went to the kitchen where several of the congregation members were chatting and preparing lunch.. In broken Spanish, and some charades I put out my request. I would sponsor someone who could take Conchita and her soon to be puppies. I would pay $10 a month. This was equivalent to half a month's salary or perhaps 25 packets of hot dogs.

      A loud burst of voices took over the entire kitchen and everyone began to debate loudly in Spanish. I like to believe that we had won the community's heart and trust. Surely, they would be willing to assist with my plea for help.

      We passed around the digital camera with Conchita's photo. Some bowed out saying they would love to take her but they had a child, a baby or a cat. One member of the congregation said he recognized her and that he was sure she had an owner.

      Nothing happened and it appeared that Conchita's fate had been determined. Lunch was served.

      An hour later, whilst the congregation members were thanking us warmly for our help, the congregation president, Eugenia, tapped me on the shoulder and said. "I have a home for your dog. She is a very old woman but has a large clean home. Her daughter is my work colleague. She is very poor and this can serve as a salary too."

      It sounded satisfactory, although I wondered whether the 'old lady' would outlive the puppies. I knew Eugenia to be a trustworthy and caring person and that with her supervision, I could continue paying the sponsorship indefinitely.

      At 5.00 pm the synagogue van would be picking us up for an event and this would be the opportunity to deliver Conchita to her new home.
"Daylight would be somewhat tricky," I thought to myself. No leash, no collar, no car to whoosh her away in. However, I decided not to share my uneasiness with my friends and as we headed in the direction of the government office. It was exciting. My heart was racing. Most of the weekend crowds were local Cubans and anything we did that was out of the ordinary could cause unwanted attention.

      We reached the familiar street corner and I spotted her a block away. Whistling softly we called her name. She came running, instantaneously, oblivious to traffic. Feeding hot dogs to her with one hand, and gently guiding her down the street with the other, we lured her out of the guard's sight and towards the nearby park bench. I lifted her up carefully. She was heavy but submitted so willingly I wondered if she sensed we were there to help her. She had tried to follow several times before and a gentle no had been sufficient for her to return towards the building. Now she was with me and I instinctively knew I would have difficulty releasing her.

      It was hard work carrying a pregnant mutt through narrow streets in 35 degree temperatures Her trusting nature made the long walk back to our Casa (private home) easier. She did not flinch once. Sweat was pouring off my face. People stared at us. Children wanted to pet her. At one point Motti offered to take over, but I was afraid that something could go wrong. I clutched her tightly. My arms were beginning to ache. All the gym workouts back home were finally paying off.

     Bringing her inside our Casa was akin to sneaking a boyfriend in the house after hours. Motti went ahead and beckoned that the coast was clear and I carried her up a flight of stairs to the bedroom where we both flopped down. She happily followed us around the room and bathroom and I sponged her dirty fur.

      She drank two cups of water and lay down on the cool tiled floor, covering her eyes with her paws . It was probably fortunate that there was only an hour left until the van's arrival. Had it been much longer, I would have been devising a plot to bring her back to Canada. We heard the van's horn and Motti distracted the Casa (homeowner/host) as Nini and I carefully carried her to the van. She sat on my lap, almost lifeless as Eugenia directed the driver to her new casa.

      It was certainly a poor family. A large, sparsely furnished living room was dominated by a prized possession, the television. Three young adults were seated on a 2 plastic lounge chair preoccupied with the television. Olga looked ancient. Her middle aged son gave a toothless smile. They were also in possession of a black Chihuahua, who they handed to me to hold. They wished to show me her weight and the fact that she was heavy and well fed .

      I gave the family $40 which Eugenia explained would last for 2 or 3 months.

      Conchita tried to run and the son held her up on her hind legs. I tried not to look at her as I choked back. I did not want to leave. When we reached the van I looked up to see the son on the balcony with Conchita. The tears flowed I could not hold them back anymore. Conchita had a new lease on life. A bowl of water, some food a playmate and shade for those scorching hot days.

      Hasta La Pronto, Conchita. Our paths will cross again.
      ———————

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