Before starting his rounds feeding street dogs in the freezing nighttime temperatures of La Paz, Fernando Kushner slips on a brand-new winter jacket (donated by outdoor brand Totto) in hopes of fending off a relapse of the pneumonia he is just getting over. He grabs his cellphone (donated by Huawei) with its incredibly powerful camera that he uses to shoot pictures for his viral posts about homeless dogs. Then Ferchy, as he is known, takes a couple of buckets filled with fried chicken scraps (donated by two major chicken chains) from the back of the van and sets out to find some of the more than 1,000 dogs he feeds each day. Passing by a storefront of Viva, the local subsidiary of Spanish telecommunications giant Telefónica, he excitedly reports that starting soon, each time a customer makes a transaction on its website they will see the message: “Adopt, don’t buy.”
It is safe to say that Kushner, 45, has had remarkable success luring major corporations to his cause. That’s because he didn’t used to spend his nights smelling like chicken, wearing grease-stained jeans and feeding stray dogs. A public relations and marketing professional who grew up in a wealthy family and earned a hefty salary, he used to smell of the luxury fragrances he represented, wear dress clothes and spend his evenings at the star-studded parties he organized for Bulgari, Chanel and other international brands.
Three years ago he walked away from it all. He took with him only his impressive and vast network of well-placed corporate contacts — along with his savings — which he is using to foster a broad and growing movement to address Bolivia’s rampant street dog problem. ”I am taking advantage of everything and everyone I have access to,” he says. ”And I am not going to stop until there are no more dogs on the streets of Bolivia.”
When he was a young boy, his grandmother found him lying on the ground of her patio drinking milk from the teat of one of her dogs.
He has his work cut out for him. Based on statistics from cities around the country, Kushner says there are some 1.9 million dogs living on the streets of Bolivia, a country of 11 million people. Most of them, say animal rights activists, have owners, but they let them roam the streets day and night. Others are abandoned or born on the streets. Considering that dogs can have litters of eight to 10 puppies twice a year, it’s a problem of exponential proportions. But already Kushner has raised awareness to a new level in Bolivia.
“Adopt, don’t buy” has become a ubiquitous slogan, says Eddy Luis Franco, of local airline Amaszonas, which supports Kushner’s efforts. “He has permeated society with a campaign on responsible animal ownership,” Franco says. Key to his success with dogs are his extraordinary people skills, says Vivianne Santos, an international sales manager for Bulgari. Kushner never failed to impress her in attracting crowds to events and generating sales far beyond what anyone expected out of Bolivia. Longtime friend Sumaya Prado, who works for the Bolivian restaurant Gustu, says that if he had wanted to, Ferchy could have made a living attending people’s parties for a fee, as the A-list always followed him.
Kushner says his grandparents, with whom he lived for most of his childhood, instilled a love of dogs and a social conscience in him. Without a trace of embarrassment he tells the story of how, when he was a young boy, his grandmother found him lying on the ground of her patio drinking milk from the teat of one of her dogs. He wonders if somehow that experience fostered his uncanny canine connection.
But it wasn’t until 2015 that he left behind his old life and founded Feeding Street Dogs in Bolivia after he started feeding a homeless dog he met in a park. It’s a 24/7 job. He has recruited seven restaurants in La Paz to donate food scraps and buys more than $1,000 of dry food each month with his own money. He has recruited veterinarians to sterilize some 500 dogs. Along with another organization’s volunteers, he has helped vaccinate more than 380 dogs this year and outfitted 800 with waterproof jackets. At least twice a week, he goes to schools to speak to children about responsible dog ownership. He has produced pamphlets and videos and rented out billboards to raise awareness. He knocks on the doors of corporate CEOs and celebrities to enlist their help or services. He has trained volunteers to replicate his work around the city and beyond. He has met with the mayor of La Paz on four occasions, although he considers it to have been a big waste of time. His social media posts go viral in minutes, and there have been days when he received 3,000 text messages.
“He is a point of reference for anything dog-related,” says Mariana de la Peña, a veterinarian who works with him. “He has become an icon.”
Not everyone can wrap their minds around his lifestyle change. Kushner’s friend Prado says some old acquaintances make fun of him, insult him or pretend they don’t know him when they see him on the street. “They treat him as if he were crazy, but I think Ferchy is one of the most sane people I know,” she says. “It is one thing to have a good time and quite another to find the purpose of your life.”
Others in La Paz object to feeding dogs, saying it will only lead to more dog poop in the streets. With rabies still a rampant problem in underdeveloped countries across the globe, international health and animal welfare organizations alike recommend against feeding street dogs because it increases their reproductive capacity. Activist Susana del Carpio of S.O.S. Animals says that Kushner’s acts of compassion could have the unintended consequence of “supporting irresponsible dog owners” who are happy to let their dogs fend for themselves in the streets.
Kushner says feeding dogs earns him the trust to get close enough to get them vaccinated and sterilized, his ultimate goal. And he has no regrets about the changes he has made in his life. “I am happier than I have ever been,” he says. “I am fulfilled.”
As he makes his way through the streets in the evening, buckets in hand, drivers wave to him from their cars and passersby stop to greet him. One woman, starstruck, calls him an angel from heaven. But his warmest reception by far is the one he receives from a group of dirty dogs who race through a small plaza to greet him, their tails wagging double time.
Photographs by Sergio Echazu for OZY
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