Putting on the dog in Buenos Aires

Fabian Carrizo is an equal opportunity dog walker.

His business card states his creed in black and white, under the icon of a German shepherd: "All breeds accepted." For a price.

A few hours of fresh air and canine conviviality will set a dog owner here back $80 to $120 a month.

But the fact that Mr. Carrizo and a few hundred other entrepreneurs can make a decent living as dog day-care providers speaks volumes about this city. Despite its location in Latin America, Buenos Aires remains more New York or Paris than Rio or Mexico City, more tango than salsa, more beef than burrito, and more middle-class than the continent's signature wealthy-poor income gap.

Much has been said lately about Buenos Aires's "Latinamericanization." Mercosur, the southern cone's custom union, is making Argentina's immediate neighbors a much higher business priority and is opening the country to the influences of its giant northern neighbor, Brazil.

Also the city, once the new home of immigrants from southern and southeastern Europe and the Middle East, is increasingly the destination on one-way tickets purchased in poor neighboring countries like Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru.

The Latin income gap is squeezing the middle here, too. Argentines were shocked recently when a new government study showed that more than a third of the country's children live in poverty. At the same time high-profile acts of crime - often involving the police, more typically a problem in Mexico or Brazil - have increased.

That has prompted middle-class homeowners, for whom the walled compounds of Latin America's well-off were always so foreign, to install window bars and metal fences. A city known for its nightlife has become a little quieter a little earlier.

Yet even though the city's famed middle class has come under attack, it still has the wherewithal to pay Carrizo to walk the dog. "I know in Uruguay their idea of a dog is more as a guard animal," says Carrizo, between licks from a Dalmatian. "But for my clients it's a pet, a part of the family that deserves nice treatment."

A collection of hundreds of canines, like the one in Centenario Park where Carrizo works along with as many as 20 "walkers," is a common sight here.

The dogs and their walkers often draw attention from outsiders. "We had a group of astounded Brazilian tourists here a while ago taking pictures, saying they'd never seen anything like it," says Javier Oscar Ramos, a dog walker. "They said in Brazil a lot of people just let the dogs run around on their own."

In Centenario Park, the walkers and their dogs gather in four contiguous, fenced sandlots that resemble schoolyard playgrounds. (One recalcitrant bulldog is tethered to the fence for a behavioral "timeout.")

The city installed the wrought-iron fences, but the walkers must keep the areas clean and fumigated. The dog walkers say that although Argentina's economic slump, partly attributable to troubles in No. 1 trade partner Brazil, has forced them to lower their rates, they can still make about $1,200 a month. That's several times the minimum wage.

Besides, the downturn has worked both ways, with some walkers replacing lost clients with new ones from families where women have now gone to work.

"This and a night job in a pizzeria allowed me to buy a house," says Mr. Ramos. If things have remained pretty good for the walkers it's because a lot of Porteos, the name of residents of this city, don't consider dog care an expendable item. "For my clients this has become a necessity," says Gabriel Gonalves, another Centenario walker. "Dogs like kids have certain needs."

The dog walkers are just one hint of a middle class that many other Latin cities are only now trying to build. Argentina's per capita income is almost three times Brazil's and almost double Uruguay's.

"The middle class here may have shrunk, but it's still very much alive," says Martin Krause, an economist and professor at the University of Buenos Aires. And although he thinks that most middle-class Porteos "still walk the dog themselves," he does think the family's dog, like their children, is a shared responsibility.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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