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Associated Press
A dog runs as police clash with student protesters in Santiago, Chile. Stray dogs have become a fixture of the street protests.

Strays join the fray in Chile’s streets

Canine companions bolstering the ranks of student protesters

– They don’t have demands, but they’re loyal to the cause and are always on the front lines. They run with protesters, lap up shots from water cannons, bark at police in riot gear and sometimes even bite officers.

Stray dogs are truly man’s best friend for thousands of students and workers who demonstrate and clash with police nearly every day to press demands for education improvements, redistribution of Chile’s wealth and environmental protections. As the protests become fixtures, normally unnoticed street dogs have become stars with Facebook fan pages and fawning media coverage to prove it.

“Blacky,” a mutt adopted by young protesters, has become the most visible mascot, with rival fan pages totaling more than 7,000 “likes.” Blacky’s admirers constantly upload pictures of him dodging tear gas or growling at baton-wielding officers.

Free-roaming dogs number in the millions in Chile in a situation the nation’s Humane Society has called alarming. Dog owners rarely spay or neuter their pets, and commonly leave them outside when they go to work in the morning. Many roam the streets all day.

While strays are feared in countries such as India, where tens of millions of street dogs have a reputation for biting people and spreading rabies, Chileans often feed and take care of strays. Protesters, for one, are glad to have the dogs on their side of the fight.

Students have been hitting the streets for more than 18 months demanding overhauls to a school system that’s been privatized since the 1973-90 dictatorship of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. Protesters say families must struggle with underperforming public schools, expensive private universities and loans at impossible interest rates.

Two military officers in impeccable white uniforms walked out of a subway station recently as two blackened mutts followed them ahead of a crowd of young protesters who booed and shouted insults.

More dogs followed sounds of sirens – and the promise of a water jet some blocks away. Police fired tear gas and the hounds ran to chew on the canisters. From a plume of smoke, Blacky dashed out.

A mass of students and hooded members of anarchist groups loitering at nearby parks flooded the streets for yet another confrontation.

Catalina Echenique, 17, sat in a circle with other students, a stray napping next to them while they prepared to clash with police.

“With a good education we can generate conscience to protect animals,” she said.

Despite the propensity of dog packs to join protesters, they’re not at constant war with the police.

Just a few blocks from the recent confrontation, police and pooches appeared to be enjoying a peaceful timeout. One stray snoozed under the noon sun next to a traffic officer at a busy intersection, while another quietly napped in the shade cast by paintings propped on artist easels in Santiago’s main square.

“I see the ritual every day: police dogs patrolling the streets and strays watching over their territory,” said Mario Guitierrez, a 52-year-old artist who plans to make the dogs the subject of his next work.

“They meet, they stare, and it seems like the police dogs get scared. The street dogs are brave!”

Police officer Eduardo Basaez of the department’s canine training unit strolled by with Lola, his 7-year-old German shepherd. They have both been part of street clashes, but Basaez said police dogs and horses are being used less these days to keep them safe.

“Dogs go to the protests because of a pack instinct. They play with the water jets, they’re happy and don’t know what’s going on,” Basaez said. “I’m a dog lover and I feel sorry for the street dogs. I live in an apartment, but if I had a tract of land I would take them all home with me.”

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