ROUGHLY SEVEN MINUTES AWAY from my house by car, down a mountain road in the middle of the forest of Rio de Janeiro, sits an encampment in which several homeless people live. Because it’s behind a wall, one can’t see the encampment from the street. But what one does see when driving by, almost always, is a phalanx of dogs in various states of play, leisure or napping in front of the wall.
I’ve seen this motley collection of canines countless times over the years. It was always mystifying because they were so obviously well-fed and cared for despite rather clearly living on the street. Equally mysterious was their quantity: It seemed one spotted new dogs in the pack each time one passed by.
As it turns out, the lives behind that wall are remarkable, and are the subject of Karollyne, the second part of Heloisa Passos’ film for Field of Vision on the homeless of Rio de Janeiro and their dogs (Part I, Birdie, was published last week). In 2009, Karollyne, a black trans woman, began living there in an abandoned, decaying structure. She invited one of her homeless friends, another trans woman, to come live with her there. Since then, they each have met men they regard as their husbands who live there with them. And those two couples have now been joined by three friends, a total of seven people forming a tightly bonded family.
Together, they care for 19 dogs and 4 cats. All of those animals were found on the street, typically abandoned in the forest. Karollyne and her group took them in upon seeing them suffering in various states of distress, hunger, trauma and sickness. “I can’t look at an animal that’s suffering, knowing I have the ability to help it, and just turn away,” she says. That she herself is homeless and struggles to provide the minimum material goods she needs to survive doesn’t seem to undermine her belief that she “has the ability to help” these animals. “I sacrifice what I can to help them, and I know I provide them with good lives.”
One’s first visit to her quarters instantly erases any doubts one may harbor about her claim. The animals are indeed uniformly clean and well-fed. The dogs have ample open space to explore, run, and play; the cats, being cats, find elevated perches from which to observe it all, occasionally descending to the dogs’ level to mingle with the posture of royalty condescending to walk among subjects. The pack is calm and well-behaved, even when unknown visitor arrive. Multiple plates are filled with dog and cat food, and buckets are overflowing with clean water. In lieu of the expected chaos and deprivation, one instead finds balance and obvious collective fulfillment.
Karollyne’s life has been shaped by unimaginable, continuous suffering and struggle: early childhood abuse, a prison term in her teens, harassment for being a trans woman, all endured during years of living on the street. Rather than producing bitterness or self-pity, those experiences have made her extraordinarily empathetic to the suffering of other vulnerable living beings. “I get my happiness from taking care of all animals who are suffering: dogs, cats, monkeys,” she said. “We try to feed and care for them all here. It’s my purpose.”
The only time Karollyne expresses anger is when she talks about the people who abandon the animals she and her family now care for. “These rich people come here and dump their dogs out of their cars, to starve to death. What kind of a cruel person could do that?” Homeless people are reflexively judged and condemned by the bourgeois mindset. The reversal of that dynamic is striking: A group of people who have next to nothing, literally not knowing where their next meal will come from, shouldering the commitment breached by those who have plenty. “I don’t know how they sleep at night when they do this,” she wonders.
Last week, when I went to their encampment to show them the final version of the film, Karollyne, her husband and one of their friends greeted me on the street and were insistent on showing me something first: the latest dog they rescued since filming ended. A white poodle, roughly 1 year old, had been dumped in the forest, and they took him in three weeks earlier. “When we found him, he was close to death: all bones, filled with fleas, eyes glazed over, no energy,” Karollyne said. The playful, energetic, friendly, very well-groomed dog they showed me was a testament to the obviously constant care and attention they’ve given him since. They all spoke like proud parents, excitingly narrating in extreme detail which friends in the pack he’s made and the challenges he still faces.
As the film demonstrates, the world Karollyne and her extended family have constructed is extraordinary on multiple levels. It also highlights a very promising template. In many cities, there are projects designed to help the homeless and other projects devoted to stray animals in need. The encampment they’ve created does both simultaneously. It not only saves animals, but provides the people most marginalized by society with fulfilling, self-actualizing work. Working on this story and film, and with Karollyne’s informal shelter, has inspired that concept: animal shelters run by animal-loving homeless people. Karollyne’s story shows the immense potential to be realized by such a project.
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My discussion with Eric Hynes about helping to produce this film is here.