by: Jan Cabral, Dogs in Brazil dogs

Elair Pereira de Souza is not a name that most people will remember. Yet thousands of Dog lovers around the globe will remember the video shown globally of her being rescued from a roof top last January during the floods and landslides that created devastation in the mountain regions of Rio. She was shown desperately awaiting help with water levels rising and raging currents all around her. In her arms was her little dog called Beethoven. Everybody watched in anticipation as a rope was thrown from a high level building way above her. She then precariously clings on as the rescuers begin hauling her up. We watched in horror as we see her lose grip of the little dog and he is swept away to certain death in torrents of raging waters.

The disaster started on the 11th January 2011 as the heaviest rain for forty four years fell relentlessly all day and night. In ten hours the region was pounded by more than a normal month’s rainfall. Water levels rose alarmingly fast. The rivers quickly filled to bursting point and reservoirs had to be opened to relieve the pressure adding to the problem. The rain was so heavy that from inside our houses it sounded like a large machine humming on the roof tops.

Itaipava, Santa Rita, Sao Jose, Teresopolis and Nova Friburgo were deluged in floods and the very mountains began to crack and crumble as they soaked up the water. Mudslides and mountain avalanches quickly began and this became the worst natural disaster that Brazil had ever seen.

Eliar was worried as she was in her house alone with her four dogs and her parrot. She decided to go to her brother’s house to ask him what to do. He was not there so she decided to go back next door to her own house. She found her way blocked as the door was full of floating furniture due to the fact that the water level elevated significantly whilst she was trying to contact her brother. Just as she returned a tree torn from its roots somewhere down river battered her house and in came gallons and gallons of water in the gaping holes it left.

Elair lost more than Beethoven on this night. The first one to die was ‘Pulga’, which means flea in English. He was a medium sized yellowish dog who was swept away with the impact of the floating tree. He was around four years old. The second was ‘Loopy’ he was also swept away whilst Elair watched helplessly. Elair had another dog called ‘Bolinha’ she was in a bedroom with the door shut. She could not open the door so she died next.  Bolinha means little ball in English. Her parrot was caged for the night and he also died. All drowned within minutes of each other.

Elair grabbed Beethoven and went to the roof. She told me that at no time did she think she was going to die. She believed strongly in God and that he would save her. When I asked who was in the house at the time she replied, ‘Just me and God’.

God was certainly with her that night. The neighbours who threw a long rope to her only had that rope because a man had been contracted to paint the tall building and had left his equipment there to start the job in a few days time. She was meant to survive. Elair said that it was very difficult to hang onto the rope and she lost grip of Beethoven. She said he looked into her eyes for one painful split second and then he too got swept away into the oblivion. She says that until today she cannot stop thinking about her dogs. The scenes play over and over again in her head.

The building onto which they hauled Elair was swaying when she finally made it to safety. She said it crossed her mind that this building would fall too. She just sat there and cried. There was nothing to say.

Her house and her brother’s house were completely destroyed, as were thousands of other houses across the region. There are areas full of tent camps for the homeless. I asked Elair if she had any photos of the dogs. Only two wet smudged photos survived one of Loopy and one of Bolinha. It was difficult to see that they were dogs because of the water damage. The flood robbed Elair of her beloved pets, her home and cruellest of all, her memories in the form of photos.

Last week she moved to her new house far from the river bank. The house was donated by a famous Brazilian who has a TV show here. The house is beautiful. A local vet donated a puppy for her which she has called ‘Fadinha’. All this helps but will never erase the trauma of that night.  She said ‘it is all very nice but I can’t take it with me’.  Nobody will ever know if Beethoven survived. If he did he could be kilometres away and nobody would recognize a small mixed breed dog as her dog because there are so many strays and nobody takes much notice of them. To the uninterested all their faces seem so similar. I don’t think it is possible he survived.

None of us in this region will ever forget that night. There is a film coming out soon for the Film In Rio film festival featuring our experiences as animal rescuers in the region. It is called ‘O Abrigo’ which means ‘The Shelter’ in English. We have all been profoundly changed by living through this experience.