As biologists we are used to measuring things with numbers. It’s the way we do it most of the time. We count how many cats we detect with our camera traps, and one more or one less means something to us. We count how many scats we collect, with the more being the merrier because they help us under stand the diet of these cats and their genetic diversity But when you work with people, it is not possible to measure success in numbers, so you have to develop a new gauge of success for your program. When you drive to a remote place and talk with a family that primarily lives alone and spends all day taking care of their livestock, you forget about the numbers and start to think from the heart.
These people reflect the strength and rigidity of the rural landscapes that they live in. They usually avoid showing their feelings, but with our traditional Argentinian “mate” as an icebreaker, we can usually create a friendly and trustworthy space to build relationships. “Mate” is a powerful drink, not because of the caffeine, but because of the sense of communion it creates as it passes from one hand to another. If you feel that something is worrying the other person, you usually drink a few “mates” before asking about it. This story begins as almost all stories in Argentina begin: with one person putting the kettle in the fire to heat water for “mate”.
María José, who goes by “Maco,” is the Conflict Mitigation field Program coordinator in Argentina. She has a guard dog breeding center in her own house and she is highly committed to the program. Part of her job is to periodically visit the homes where the dogs have been working, to check on them and assess if they are behaving as expected, accompanying the herders in the final process of dog training. When she arrived at one of the homes, Marta received her by putting the kettle on the firepit and moving the ashes to heat the water, and went to look for her husband Martín, who was out with the livestock. As soon as they came back, Maco could feel that something was wrong. She thought the dog named Nehuen might have been causing some mischief. Martín’s eyes looked tired and deeply sad, but Maco knew she should wait, and after several “mates” Martín finally told her that Nehuen had died unexpectedly, possibly due to some trauma he sustained in the field.
Guard dogs are not house pets, 10 they are working dogs and they don’t develop the kind of relationship we perceive as “normal” with their owners, so it was surprising how deeply affected Martín was. He explained that for the first time in his hard – working life, he and Marta could sleep through the night, with Nehuen guarding their livestock 24/7. Concern now weighed heavily on their chests as their goats were again susceptible to predator attacks. This story showed us that dogs are not just numbers, and even “1” can mean a lot more than it appears. Nehuen was so much more than a “1” to Marta and Martín because he represented peace of mind and a full night’s sleep. Thanks to the constant support of our donors and friends, Maco could guarantee to Martín and Marta that when the next litter of puppies arrives, one of them will be theirs.